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Hi. I’m Adrian Graham. I write speculative fiction (science fiction, and fantasy). Here’s my email, should you wish to contact me. Previous updates are listed in the archive.


Blog Archive: 2016 – 2021

Table of contents


Reflecting and writing

There’s no doubt about it, shaping my thoughts by writing blog posts has been a great way to reflect on a variety of subjects. Subjects that were previously unclear, I had half-realised ideas about, mistaken preconceptions of, or I had conflicting ideas about were resolved simply by spending a little time, some thought, and a few hundred words writing a blog post.

It’s all part of the writing process. Working things out, reflecting, increasing my awareness, and developing the craft. Ideas take time and space to develop.

But there comes a time when I need to refocus my attention away from reflection to the writing itself. I think that both phases (reflecting and being productive) are essential for writing (and living).

During the ‘productivity phase’ it’s nice not having the distraction thinking about things, reflecting, or writing posts. It’s time to put the reflection into practice.

Without the productivity, delivering the end product, the writer has nothing to show for their time. As Steve Jobs famously said to a group of Apple engineers in 1983:

Real artists ship.

His point wasn’t that by shipping something you automatically become an artist, or create art, but that if you don’t complete something there’s nothing to deliver.

So, now it’s time to switch into productivity mode and focus on the writing.

2021–05–02


Climate change in fiction

Novels about climate change already have their own snappy sounding genre: cli-fi. It’s usually a sub-genre of an existing genre like the crime thriller, or speculative fiction. It’s difficult to find any recent speculative fiction that doesn’t have some reference to rising sea levels, desertification, pollution, or global warming. There’s nothing more that speculative fiction writers like than some kind of grim ecological disaster, especially a post-apocalyptic or dystopian context.

While the term cli-fi was only invented in 2013, fiction about devastating climate change has been around for a while. In Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole climate change occurs when the Earth tilts on its axis. More recently, J G Ballard’s novels The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962), and The Burning World (AKA The Drought) (1964) have dealt with environmental disaster.

A number of other writers have tackled the subject: Margaret Atwood with Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), Jeff Vandermeer with Annihilation, Nathaniel Rich with Odds Against Tomorrow, Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010), Paolo Bacigalupi with The Windup Girl (2009), Ship Breaker (2010), The Drowned Cities (2012), The Water Knife (2015), and Tool of War (2017), Kim Stanley Robinson with 2312 (2012), and The Ministry for the Future (2020), and mar El Akkad with American War (2017).

It’s been big in movies, for decades, with films like Soylent Green (1973), Quintet (1979), Waterworld (1995), The Core (2003), 2012 (2005), WALL-E (2008), Interstellar (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), fusing the disaster movie with climate change, and speculative fiction.

It’s difficult to imagine writing speculative fiction set in the future that doesn’t address this subject either directly or indirectly. And increasingly it will be a factor, not just in speculative fiction, but in real world stories, motivating the characters and informing their concerns.

2021–05–01


Thoughts on societies and speculative fiction

I’ve written about speculative fiction in relation to world building, and imagining different social structures, including empires. My research has played an important part in the world building process.

In simple terms, societies rise, plateau, and fall. They actual pattern of change may be a more intricate combination of these states. They may go through a rebirth process, for example, to stem the decline, and start rising again. While the cycle may take a long time to occur in ‘real time’, in fiction-time its likely to be dramatically condensed.

I’ve written about societies in speculative fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy being representations of heaven or hell. Even though writers go out of their way to tell more nuanced variations on these two simplistic extremes, they do still provide a basic template for understanding societies in speculative fiction, even if the imagines society had positive and negative traits.

The heaven-like society is a paradise world, an aspiration perhaps. The hellish world is a warning, or an exaggerated version of our world’s shortcomings. Either way, societies in speculative fiction are conversations about the world we live in now. They are today’s hopes and fears about tomorrow.

Societies are driven by a combination of motivations. I’ve listed some of them here:

Sometimes a society is driven by a desire to live in harmony with its environment. An example of this is spiritual Na’vi (who live on the planet Pandora) in the film Avatar. A ‘balanced society’ is often dragged into conflict by an aggressively ‘unbalanced one’ (which seeks to exploit natural resources, or gain their territory). Much of this is a reworking of colonial expansion during the time of the European empires.

Sometimes societies wish to exert control over their own destiny, to isolate themselves from other civilisations, like the society featured in Black Panther. Societies often represent exaggerated philosophical positions and arguments

Or, they act as thought experiments for ideas like collective consciousness. They may illustrate sociological and behavioural ideas through a culture’s unusual social customs, illustrating different ways of thinking, or to make a moralistic point.

At one end of the scale there are anarchist societies. These are usually portrayed as chaotic. At the other end of the scale there are highly controlled, organised, and ordered societies. These societies are usually dystopian ones. They may be de-regulated, feral capitalism, free-market systems where there is little accountability or transparency. Places where mass exploitation of the general population is the norm. They may exhibit signs of extreme social division (with almost all of the society working for the benefit of a small elite). Another possibility is that they may be repressively militaristic in their manner, much like the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, which is a fictional combination of the British Empire and 1930s Nazi Germany.

What cultures do those societies have? What ideas motivate them?

They might be highly competitive, driven to the point of obsession, or bureaucratic behemoths unable to adapt. They may be open, closed, or highly secretive. They may be accountable or totally unaccountable.

Ideology quickly turns to dogma in speculative fiction. Marxist thinking inevitably becomes repressive as its revolution zeal rapidly resembles the imperial power it replaced, the state police it replaced, and the elite power base it replaced. Its constant need to realise the world in binary terms (oppressor or victim) turns everyone into one or the other. The result, which 1984 explores so well, is a never-ending hate-war, a continual desire to reclassify anything and everyone into one of those categories.

Capitalism, in speculative fiction, is likely to become exploitative, and slide into ever-increasing cronyism and corruption. It will operate for the benefit of the large corporations. In theory, the advantage of Democracy is that it gives the population a way of voting out the old administration, and ushering in a new one. IT may change little, but it acts as a flushing of the system, washing away the corruption and cronyism of a particular administration.

A common scenario inherent in dystopian speculative fiction is when democratic process is compromised (often by an elite, the military, or corporate interests). In The Handmaid’s Tale, a ruthless and powerful elite has taken power in America, trashing democratic values and instilling its repressive and hateful theocratic-inspired dogma.

In speculative fiction there aren’t many examples of smoothly running societies populated with happy smiling people. And when they are, they’re likely to be walked all over by some malign force and used as motivation for the protagonist to take out his or her revenge. When these societies are depicted the reader or viewer learns remarkably little about them. The human world depicted in Battlestar Galactica (2003 – 2009), for example, is destroyed by the Cylons (a hostile, cybernetic race) very shortly after the opening of the story.

In some speculative fiction, soft science, science fiction, and fantasy, the world building is focused on the society itself and the behaviour of the people who live in it. This is the case, for example, with Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1959).

Hard science, science fiction like 1951s Foundation stresses the positive aspects of technology. It presents an optimistic vision of the future where anything is achievable. The benefits to society of harnessing technology outweigh the disadvantages. The positive outlook of 1950s hard sci-fi echoes the bright future that personified America’s view of the world at that time, the perception it had of itself, and of its capability. That ‘we can achieve anything’ self-belief feels a lot less familiar to us today, and it’s more likely to come from a Chinese sci-fi writer than an American one.

When human societies encounter alien lifeforms, they have their own societies, customs and behaviours. In John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series of novels, humans (augmented and genetically modified soldiers) fight the alien lifeforms. Like Ender’s Game, those alien entities are mostly bug-like insectoids.

Alien beings are angelic (high-lifeforms) like the benign aliens featured in The Abyss, or they are monstrous creatures. Those aggressive societies often features cultures and societies with collective hive-mind, or a violent predatorily, hunter instinct. Those societies often possess beast-like traits. Their culture may be inspired by folklore, biblical events, historical cultures, or emulate human empires.

Societies in speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy exist as mirrors of to our own society. They explore new possibilities, optimistic playgrounds, spaces for charming inventiveness, notions of social improvement, or they may serve as warnings, opportunities to express prevailing cultural fears, notions of social vulnerability, and perceptions of a wider cultural malaise.

2021–04–28


‘The Mandalorian’

I’ve been enjoying season one and two of The Mandalorian. It has slick storytelling, an action-based narrative, decent acting, and immersive special effects, spaceships, monsters and robots. It’s very Star Wars.

But, there’s something weird about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and then it came to me. There aren’t many ‘adult relationships’. The protagonist is basically a weaponised child minder. He’s an updated version of the dashing, honour-bound character in The Rocketeer (1991).

Because of this, there’s something slightly weird about the world it depicts, an uncanny valley. It feels like a thirteen-year-old boy’s concept of the real world, his idea of living as an adult. This is compounded by a task-based plot structure that echoes the approach of a computer game. In other words, even though its a charming, fun adventure, and an enjoyable series to watch, it’s also lacking something.

2021–04–28


‘The Hero’

Lee Child’s essay ‘The Hero’ was published as a small book in 2019. In it, he explores ideas about heroes, starting with the drug heroin, which gets its name from the German word for heroic.

Lee Child describes the idea of the folk hero, the knight errant, the ronin, etc. A man of office who is no longer in office, a man who travels from place to place, helping and protecting the innocent. Hence the Jack Reacher character was once a major in the US army, but was let go by the military. Now he wonders America without a real purpose, helping and protecting innocent people.

Lee Child believes that the concept of the hero is a myth. Today, the word ‘hero’ is so misused that it’s become debased and meaningless. In real life there are no heroes:

I have no heroes and recognise none.

And yet, people still have fears, so there’s a continuing need to believe in heroes, especially in fiction. The hero is there to calm our fears, to reassure us.

2021–04–24


Forcing the protagonist to conform

The story of the protagonist going against the prevailing social conventions and beliefs runs deep in myth, ancient legend, and contemporary fiction.

It’s common in children’s fiction for the main character to ignore established, or sensible advice, usually out of ignorance or because they think they know best. In The Jungle Book, Mowgli repeatedly puts himself in danger because he doesn’t listen to the parental-like warnings of Bagheera the panther. The wise Bagheera warns Mowgli about the dangers lurking in the jungle, but Mowgli never listens. Pinnoccio ignores the advice of Jiminy Cricket. Simba in The Lion King ignores the warning from his father about the dangerous shadowy land. Snow White doesn’t listen to the ‘seven dwarfs’ when they warn her not to talk to suspicious strangers.

This scenario is also common in horror fiction. A group of teenagers are warned not to go to a creepy, abandoned house on the edge of town — and what’s the first thing they do?

In adventures, quests, and Noir detective stories, the protagonist is warned not to go to a certain place, or search for an object, or continue their investigation.

In Trolls World Tour (2020) the evil Rocker trolls enforce their music, behaviour and appearance on the other trolls. The injustice of this is palpable. Those sweet, lovable Pop trolls are being forced to become Rocker trolls. Soon Queen Barb will use her evil power to transform all the trolls into Rocker trolls. The only person who can stop her is the lovable Pop troll, Queen Poppy.

The theme of Trolls World Tour is a familiar one in fiction. It’s when a misguided or malign antagonist goes to any length to repress or enforce their concept of normality on the protagonist (or the group they are part of). The 1950s ‘delinquent’ rebel without a cause fought against conservative values. Winston in 1984 fought to retain the truth, and his individuality, in a totalitarian state.

Social conformity plays out in so many ways, especially when the protagonist sees the world differently to the other characters. The protagonist is marked out as different in some way, through their sexuality, appearance, or interests. Whatever it is (and it can be more or less anything), it’s something that annoys the antagonist intensely.

There’s Fascism with a big ‘F’ and casual fascism with a small ‘f’. Casual fascism inhabits every story worth telling. This is the antagonist’s prejudice and petty hatred (often operating in plain sight) in the everyday world directed against the protagonist (and his or her group). These antagonists are often sociopathic personalities, bolstered by fearful or passive characters surrounding them who knowingly turn a blind eye to take the path of least resistance. Manipulative lies are often used to incite and direct group hatred.

The zoot suit riots were a real world example of bigots who stirred up hatred and violence against innocent people (in this case beating them up and stripping them of their clothes, in plain view of the Police who took no action). Fascism always starts with casual fascism.

Echoing real life, many stories feature central characters who are fighting against an imposed order, or established ideas, both of which may be unjust, or simply nonsensical. This is one of the greatest human stories, maybe the only one that matters. It’s about overcoming incredible odds to create change. This is the story of someone like Nelson Mandela.

I think it’s fair to say that if the central character isn’t fighting against a repressive force, the status quo, or some form of enforced social conformity, then the story might have a problem. Unless it’s a comedy / romance, it might not even be a story (and there’s plenty of protagonists escaping from conformity in comedy and romance!). Forcing the protagonist to conform, against their will, and watching them struggle to break free can make for a great story.

2021–04–24


‘Old Man’s War’

Old Man’s War (2005) is a military science fiction novel by John Scalzi. It’s a riff on Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), with some added Frankenstein, and Ender’s Game.

Old Man’s War follows 75-year-old John Perry who joins the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) to fight hostile aliens (some of these alien species farm humans so that they can eat the human babies, which they consider a culinary delicacy).

The arduous training phase allows the reader to get to know the characters with the latter part of the novel covering the various conflicts Perry has with enemy alien lifeforms.

Joining the Colonial Defense Force sees Perry sign away his rights, including his right to live on Earth. His mind is copied to a new specially grown body, which has been genetically engineered as a younger version of himself, but with exaggerated muscularity, green skin, improved feline-like eyes, and a brain implant (that among other things provides a basic consciousness override and telepathic communication with other members of his squad).

The novel explores the effects of his enhanced and augmented body, the initial sense of power it gives the ‘75-year-old’, the traumatic effects of combat, stress, the guilt of killing intelligent alien species, and the ensuing crisis of identity provoked by the experience.

Beneath the dramatic action Old Man’s War asks some profound questions about galactic competition, and what it means to be human.

It’s an accessible read with clear prose, defined characters, plenty of action, and a good plot revelation along the way. But the thing that keeps it all together is its dry sense of humour.

2021–04–21


‘Dune’

Dune (1984) was adapted by David Lynch from the 1965 novel. The film has a poor reputation. The main problem with it is that it’s too long and slow moving. Lynch was accused of not being faithful enough to the novel, but I think he actually did a decent job for the fans. The problem is that it includes too much of the source material and as a consequence it has a lot of explaining to do. If there’s not enough time to explain something in a film it’s probably best to allude to it visually without trying to tell the audience all the details.

The hero is a prince who becomes a saviour type figure. It feels slightly too easy. There’s a lot of gory blood and torture in the film that’s gross. This just wasn’t a film that I enjoyed watching. The noir-baroque style is interesting but the retro-futurism feels very 1984. Anyone today would probably give it a more glossy advanced tech sci-fi futurism.

Some of the elements in the film are annoying, the glowing blue eyes would probably be done more subtly now and the spoken thoughts get a bit too much. Both of these elements get in the way of the acting performances. The spoken thoughts are often overtly expositional, which doesn’t help.

The film doesn’t fully deserve its negative reputation. It has all the hallmarks of a story that’s struggling to do too much: to world build, to explore ideas and intricate politics within that world, and to be an action-adventure film.

2021–04–20


‘Foundation’

Foundation is a 1951 science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov. The book is made up of five connected short stories that have been joined together to form a novel. This is the first book in the Foundation Series.

The story revolves around the Foundation, a scientific institute that’s been set up by ‘psychohistorian’ Hari Seldon. He’s predicted the demise of the Galactic Empire and gets the go ahead to create the Encyclopaedia Galactica, a resource base of human knowledge.

Foundation is an intriguing sci-fi document, but it’s also quite a weird book. In some ways, it’s typical of older science fiction where the ideas are more interesting than the execution of the story. (I’d put Philip K Dick in that category.) This is old school 1950s hard science, science fiction. It’s 1950s science-optimism with 1950s technology, which feels dated today. We feels more futuristic than this.

The novel deals with the bigness of a civilisation over time. Scientists as builders. Scientists as demigods, almost. There’s no comedy here and I’m suspicious of any world without humour. Instead, there’s lots of talk about steel and heavy industry. The characters are described as wearing un-stainable plastic clothes, and nuclear energy comes with no apparent downsides.

The dialogue feels like a radio play, with characters speaking as if they are making worthy and self-important proclamations, but instead of being impressive it’s like we’re sitting in on a local council meeting. There are some clunky and inadvertently amusing phrases that characters use like ‘by the galaxy’, and ‘I don’t care an electron’, which made me smile and reminded me of the ‘frack’ expletive used in Battlestar Galactica. The novel reminded me of Forbidden Planet (1956) with its earnestness and a story that’s populated with characters who appear to have come from the 1940s.

Asimov loosely envisaged this as a science fiction version of the fall of the Roman Empire, with the declining Galactic Empire standing in for Ancient Rome. The theme of an impending societal collapse and cultural decline is a prominent one in science fiction. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) deals with similar issues, but has stood the test of time better.

One of the problems with reading this novel now, is that it’s hard to empathise with the idea of a Galactic Empire, or to take it seriously even. Asimov was a hard science, science fiction writer. He wasn’t keen on New Wave science fiction:

I want science fiction. I think science fiction isn’t really science fiction if it lacks science. And I think the better and truer the science, the better and truer the science fiction.

I think it’s fair to say that science fiction has shifted more towards soft science, science fiction, with many writers preferring to refer to themselves as writers of speculative fiction, which makes the science-first tone of Foundation even more dated.

While the prose is unfussy and clear, there isn’t much in the way of character depth or development, and it feels like a science fiction reimagining of a 1940s culture. Another criticism is that the environments haven’t been fleshed out. There’s a lot of talking heads, which goes back to the novel feeling like a radio play.

One of the strongest ideas in Foundation is the idea of ‘psychohistory’, or using the statistical modelling of mass data to make predictions about the future. This is hugely relevant and popular today, with data being used from social graphs and digital profiles. But, unlike Foundation, big data often has negative consequences (invasions of privacy, connotations of political manipulation, and serving the needs of unregulated big business).

For a contemporary reader the high-seriousness of Foundation and its status as a sci-fi classic makes it the potential inspiration for parody. The Encyclopedia Galactica idea, for example, was used by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978).

The novel is being adapted for a television series and it will be interesting to see how far it deviates from the book.

2021–04–20


The Interdependency series

John Scalzi’s Interdependency series, The Collapsing Empire (2017), The Consuming Fire (2018), and The Last Emperox (2020) explores a far distant future civilisation, which is about to face a catastrophic natural change to their environment. The series asks the question: how do people deal with the chaos at the twilight of civilisation? Do they double-down on preparing for the future? Do they regard it as a business opportunity? Do they use it as a means to gain power?

If the idea of a civilisation facing destruction sounds depressing, it’s worth noting that change can also bring unexpected new possibility.

The series revolves around the world building and the relationships between the characters on a personal and a political level. With so much detail to cover there’s little room for rich character development. This is really a space opera about power politics and disruptive change. To ensure that the characters take the centre stage, the hard science and descriptions of technology have been kept to a minimum.

The writing style is accessible, using an expositional driven narrative that does a good job of ensuring that the reading knows what’s going on. Disparate characters and storylines merge together during the course of the series.

The territory of the Interdependency Empire includes far flung planets and constructed space habitats that are connected by the Flow (a wormhole or portal that links the different locations together). Without the Flow, travel between the various parts of the Empire would take years or decades. The Empire is ‘interdependent’ because its varied locations require shared resources for their survival. As a result of this, it depends on the Flow (a natural phenomena that’s not fully understood). There are elements of The Foundation (the grand scale) and Dune (the Imperial politics) in the Interdependency series.

The Collapsing Empire is the strongest book in the series. The Consuming Fire (in typical series fashion) feels like a bit of a filler. There’s a twist near the end of The Last Emperox followed by a revelation. The revelation felt inevitable, but also appropriate considering how the story had been setup.

The ending rounds things off nicely but the final revelation feels like it’s been put there as a teaser for book four.

2021–04–20


Society, empire, and speculative fiction

World building in speculative storytelling involves three basic types of society:

The plateau society isn’t changing. It can be ossified or culturally stifled in some respects, or it can be in balance with its surroundings (in a positive way).

Rising societies may be extropian and believe that they are all-powerful and capable of achieving anything. They may possess a sense of being an unstoppable force because they possess momentum. In a rapidly rising society there can be an almost god-like sense of cultural supremacy over their rivals, and over nature itself.

Societies in decline have achieved things in the past, but they are now fragmenting and transforming into a diminished force. They are subject to the forces of natural decay, entropy. They may look back to their past glories and historical power, but something has changed in the declining society that has fundamentally damaged its culture and confidence and they may be post-extropian. The shock could be due to dwindling resources, a ruthless competitor, environmental change, incompetence, or eco-disaster. The declining society places a priority on keeping things just as they are, resisting change. A declining society is often distracted by its own divisions and infighting.

Historical examples give speculative fiction writers real-world precedents like the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union. These systems exhibited all the classic growth and fragmentation patterns of cyclical rise, plateau, and decline. The final phase of decline necessitates disproportionate levels of resources going into making the empire appear successful, instead of doing the things needed to change itself.

A key aspect of any culture in the cyclical process. The seeds of its success also tend to be the same things that lead to its destruction. Societies and empires often become obsessive about petty things. The Easter Islander’s became obsessive statue builders. The leaders of the Ottoman Empire were more interested in obscure forms of Ottoman poetry than ruling their Empire effectively.[1]

The cycle of rise, plateau, and fall, is often represented in speculative fiction as:

The rise and fall of societies in speculative fiction has real-word precedents. Abandoned cities in the jungles of South American, and South East Asia. Real examples of societies that developed sophisticated cultures and then fell into decline.

This rise and fall echoes the life cycle of the individual person with his or her own fears about obsolescence and old age, of being usurped. Rightly, or wrongly, the so-called ‘West’ is often described as being in decline. This resonates with speculative fiction. As resources dwindle and debts increase it becomes harder to maintain a civic society.

In the 1970s, the post-apocalyptic story became increasingly popular. It echoes fears about nuclear war. In the 1980s the US was going to be wiped out by Japanese technological supremacy, and yet by the end of the 1990s America was generally perceived to have turned itself around to become the world’s only superpower.

Today, American Declinism is back in force with the perceived threat from a rising China. But the hopes and fears of rising and declining societies are not new. The Victorians used the classical world to express their own fears about the decline and fall of the British Empire.

Oswald Spengler’s book The Decline of the West was published in 1926 (English edition). It represents German soul-searching after defeat of World War One. A lot of it is twaddle, but the gist of it is that cultures take 1,000 years to mature into a civilisation, and then they take another 1,000 years to decline.

The Decline of the West had a precursor, Edward Gibbon’s 1776 The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s book covered the Roman Empire, early Christianity, and the fall of Byzantium. Like other Enlightenment thinkers, Gibbon shared responsibility for characterising the ‘Dark Ages’ as a hellish period after the retreat of the Roman Empire. Despite its brutality, the Victorians admired Ancient Rome as a perceived bastion of civilised orderliness. The grand tour had long been a quasi-religious adulation of Ancient Roman and Ancient Greek culture.

The academic study of the classical world has led to an certain kind of empathy with classical cultures, which is strange because those cultures often had very different values to ours. The ancient world was perceived as being rational and ordered, and yet those ancient societies watched people fight to the death for entertainment, and owned slaves.

The Victorians perceived Ancient Rome to be a kind of precursor to the British Empire. It was admired for its rational mindset, its literature, history, engineering prowess, architecture, and military skill. Ancient Rome was a brutal society that was based around the exploitation of slave labour, in much the same way that slave labour was used in the ‘New World’, and in Germany during the National Socialist period.

Speculative fiction like Foundation, and Brave New World echo ideas from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The feeling is that a society that represents the pinnacle of achievement is in decline and that there is something profoundly melancholy about this loss.

The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.

Edward Gibbon — ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’

Ancient Rome is seen almost as a close ‘friend’ who is in trouble, pulled down by dark forces. The key phrase from the passage above is ‘overwhelmed by a deluge’, which firmly places Ancient Rome as a kind of victim of barbaric forces. Imperial Rome’s decline is attributed to acquiring ‘the vices of strangers’ (they got soft) and ‘corrupting the discipline’ (they became complacent) and ‘the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians’ (the perceived negative effects of what we would now call illegal immigration).

I’ve written about ‘Empire, racism, the slave trade, and statues’ before, and it’s occurred to me that the same sentimental identification with Ancient Rome is also happening with the debate about statues and notions of the British Empire. Criticising empire is seen by some as being ‘disloyal’. One of the signs of membership and belonging to a group is being taken seriously enough to be able to criticise it. Outsiders, non-members, and barbarians don’t get a say.

The classically trained mindset tends to admire or empathise with classical empires. Likewise the individual with a close emotional relationship with British history might feel the same sense of emotional loss when a statue comes under attack from ‘a deluge of Barbarians’.

Speculative fiction often deals with astounding worlds, destroyed planets, archaeological artefacts, ruined cities, sinking cities, and crumbling social systems. The new replaces the old, and in its turn, the new is replaced by a new-new, and the next new after that.

Speculative fiction is able to deal with the grand vision of people and places through time. Likewise, Historical fiction is also able to deal with the ruthlessness of shifting fortunes and geo-political influence. What these worlds all share are the cyclical patterns of rising and falling societies and — all too often strangely — ‘good old fashioned’ empires. Star Wars has the evil Galactic Empire, Dune has its empire, Foundation has its non-ironic empire.

The notion of a once great fallen empire is alive in Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and in the science fiction of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. When space travellers in an episode of Star Trek discover an inhabited planet, the society is inevitably in a phase of rising (arrogant and self-important) or falling (declining, broken by plague, war or some natural calamity, an ossified shell of its former glory).

The Cold War post-apocalyptic story is at its heart a tale about a world that’s fallen and is struggling to rise again. A Canticle for Leibowitz captures this perfectly.

In Dune a decadent and over-ritualised society (much like Ghormenghast) echoes Gibbon’s story of decline and fall. Gibbon blamed the Christians for the decline of Rome. ‘Foreign’ ideas made Rome weak. Emperor Sardaukar’s army in Dune follows a similar path to decadence.

In Foundation, Hari Seldon predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire with a dark age lasting 30,000 years, after which a second empire will emerge. Meanwhile, the existing Galactic Empire’s decline is too far gone to halt or reverse.

It’s remarkable how notions of empire continue to be so prominent in speculative fiction (as are the cultural leftovers of empire in the real world).

Star Wars summed it up brilliantly, are you with the rebels, or the Galactic Empire?


[1] There were three versions of the Ottoman language: Fasih Türkçe which was used for poetry and Imperial administration, Orta Türkçe, which was used by the high classes and trades, and Kaba Türkçe, which was used by the lower classes. The Ottoman language used Persian / Arabic script, but this was changed in 1928 to the Latin alphabet that’s used in modern Turkish (after the language was reformed as part of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s widespread changes following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War One).

2021–04–20


‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

This documentary by Frank Pavich explores Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade production of Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’ (1965). Jodorowsky’s production was killed by the studio. It’s been called ‘the greatest movie never made’.

Alejandro Jodorowsky had directed El Topo (1973), and The Holy Mountain (1973) before working on Dune. They were two very weird cult films. Watching them is a bit like taking LSD on an alien planet.

Had Jodorowsky’s ambitious adaptation of Dune been released in the early 1970s, it would have predated Star Wars, and potentially located the space opera within the realm of the art film, or so the theory goes, instead of mainstream Hollywood. The space opera would have been a ‘serious’ artistic subject, a story aimed at an adult audience.

His film would have stared David Carradine, Brontis Jodorowsky (Alejandro Jodorowsky’s twelve-year-old son), Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali. The soundtrack would have been composed by Pink Floyd and French prog-rock band Magma. The artistic design would have been created by H R Giger, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, with special effects by Douglas Trumbull (2001), later replaced by Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star).

The visual concepts from the flip book are impressive. It’s pointless speculating what the resulting film might have been like. H R Giger’s sketches make it look like a Mexican day of the dead meets Alien. Dan O’Bannon, H R Giger, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud would later work together again on Alien (1979).

Ultimately, Jodorowsky’s project was cancelled by the studio, just before the sets were about to be constructed (due to a lack of finance to continue backing the production). It probably did not help that it was so ‘way out’ and Jodorowsky wanted to make it a twelve hour film, and the studio wanted a 90 minute film. During the production process, Frank Herbert’s Dune had turned into Jodorowsky’s Dune.

What would Jodorowsky’s Dune have been like? Judging by his other work as an auteur film director it would probably have been surreal, outlandishly surreal for a general audience, and probably a product of the 1970s. It might have ended up being an eccentric oddity like Zardoz, or Roger Vadim’s 1968 film Barbarella? Who can say for sure, because we will never know.

The film’s ambitious visual world-building made it into Jodorowsky’s graphic novels, which he created in collaboration with Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. Many of the ideas were subsequently used in films like Star Wars (1977), at least, that is what has been speculated.

Kurt Stenzel’s (SpacEKraft) evocative analogue electronic music for the documentary really sets the 70s tone, almost sounding like the soundtrack from the unmade movie — it’s Tangerine Dream meets Cluster.

Years later, the studio gave the Dune project to David Lynch. His 1984 version of Dune received negative criticism and was a box office failure. When it was released, David Lynch publicly disowned the film.

Denis Villeneuve’s new version of Dune is scheduled for release in late 2021. It’s been reported that it will be split into two films (because they were unable to compress the story into a 90 minute feature). The second film will only be green lit if the first one is a commercial success. It will be interesting to see how Villeneuve’s version of Dune turns out. Will he succeed, many years later, (with the benefit of greatly improved CGI, and with a $160M budget), where the 1984 version failed? Or, will Dune be cited as one of those highly complex novels that can’t be filmed?

2021–04–19


Going to war over an egg

Jonathan Swift’s satirical work Gulliver’s Travels (Its full title is: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships) finds the protagonist, Gulliver, in the bizarre land of Lilliput, which is divided between the higher-heeled Tramecksans (High Church) and the lower-heeled Slamecksans (Low Church).

The Lilliputians fear invasion from the Island of Blefuscu. The two great powers of Lilliput and Blefuscu are paranoid and distrustful of one another. Lilliputians eat their boiled eggs from the small end after a (now-deceased) Emperor introduced a law stating that all his subjects must eat their eggs from the small end (he decided this when he cut himself eating an egg from the big end). Many of his subjects chose death over being forced to eat their eggs from the wrong end. While most Lilliputians have converted, the island of Blefuscu remain Big-Endians. The disagreement between which end to start eating an egg from has created mutual antipathy and war between the two states.

Swift was satirising the ridiculousness of British and European politics. The Tramecksans (High-Heels) are Whigs and the Slamecksans (Low-Heels) are Tories. Lilliput and Blefuscu are England and France. The war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians is the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The change from eating one end of an egg to the other is akin to the Protestant Reformation.

Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, is an outstanding example of satire, and fantasy fiction world building. It’s a story of politics and manners — a journey into a strange world.

Do we live in particularly Swiftian times, or are all times Swiftian in their own way?

2021–04–13


‘Love and Monsters’

Love and Monsters (2020) sells itself convincingly in the opening credits with a comic take on post-apocalyptic story tropes. The self-depreciating humour does a good job of allowing the viewer to empathise with the protagonist without making him seem too weak.

The film is a multiple cross-genre tale: monster movie, post-apocalypse, wilderness survival, comedy, romance, quest, action-adventure, coming-of age, human and animal buddy story, and a road trip (albeit roadless and on foot) where the hero makes new friends along the way. The story references A Boy and His Dog, Tremors, and Zombieland. It keeps things upbeat, never allowing itself to become self-important or sentimental.

With a $30M production budget, Love and Monsters feels like a film in a higher price bracket. The special effects are especially good considering the budget. Dylan O’Brien (Maze Runner trilogy) does a nice job in the lead role. The ending is a slight disappointment, which takes the overall story satisfaction down a notch or two. It’s not genre defining or defying, but as a piece of fun entertainment Love and Monsters definitely works.

2021–04–14


‘Rampage’

When an experiment in space goes wrong, three animals on Earth are infected with mutant genetics. Only Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) and Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) can stop the mayhem.

Rampage (2018) is an effective big action monster movie. If you can look past some ridiculous moments and convenient plotting, it’s a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin action and special effects crowd-pleaser.

2021–04–13


1,000 true fans

Self-publishing is one of the avenues open to any writer. To make it work, the writer has to keep writing books and successfully sell those books to an audience who are willing to keep buying those books. One of the stats that’s often used to describe how this scenario works is the 1,000 true fans scenario.

A super-fan or a true fan is different to an ordinary fan. A true fan will literally buy everything that an artist, musician, or writer produces. The idea has been around for a while. Craig Mod is good example of a writer who’s used this approach. He’s published a couple of books. The most recent is Kissa by Kissa. He also makes money through a membership scheme.

The 1,000 true fans theory is used by people to work out business plans aimed at supporting themselves financially. As with any new business venture there’s always a challenging phase where things look tricky, and that’s where many people give up. The people who succeed are the ones who don’t give up. But there’s a catch to making it work.

The catch is that it’s really hard to build up a fan base of 1,000 true fans. The content has to be of a consistently high quality and suitable for that audience. The writer has to sustain a regular output over time. That means producing more of the same content to the same consistently high quality.

Selling Kindle ebooks on Amazon is competitive and writers often discover that they need to be prolific producers of novellas because self-published ebook sales tend to spike quite quickly and then decline (if they spike at all, that is). Because of the rapid trail-off it’s often not worth writing full length novels because they take so long to edit and polish.

Another way to see being published by a micro-press or self-publishing on Amazon is that it’s a form of slush pile. It’s a theory that’s worked for a small number of writers, but I’m not sure that it’s a good strategy for most people.

Ten or twenty years ago self-publishing or ‘vanity publishing’, as it was called, was looked down on (it’s surprisingly how much of our cultural literature was self-published before the modern publishing houses emerged). Thankfully, perceptions about self-publishing have changed.

It’s wonderful to have options for artists, writers and poets outside of mainstream publishing, outside of the small presses, and micro-presses even. Being realistic though, there’s a big difference between a manuscript that a writer uploads to Amazon’s Kindle server and a professionally published book. There’s likely to be a bunch of talented and experienced people in the conventional publishing loop (editors, designers, and a marketing department). And, even with todays restricted publishing budgets, that input is still incredibly valuable. Just having a properly edited text with a decent book cover to go with it makes a huge difference, and then there’s the marketing…

Anyway, back to the 1,000 true fans… The people who are good at audience building tend to put their whole lives into it. They make it look easy, because they’re good at it, and they are dedicated. Unless the writer hits the jackpot (most likely some form of success that leads on to being picked up by a conventional publisher), it’s necessary to keep churning out slim novellas to keep the fans happy.

It’s probably easier for musicians, who can sell merchandise. Musicians are often very active on the live performance scene and are likely to have built up a local network. That’s where they build up a significant chunk of their audience. Generally, the aim is still to get noticed by a record company, and to get a record contract. Sometimes it goes the other way though. A band is dropped by their record company and they successfully sell music from their website (and other platforms). They can do this because they already have the fanbase.

It’s much the same for writers. A writer who can build up an audience through live events and readings is much more likely to use it to get a book deal with a publisher than to go it alone.

While digital tools and internet platforms have made it easier to build an online presence, it’s still hard to get noticed. Think how little attention span people have these days. They skim read the headlines! They link to things without bothering to read the article or check anything about the author. The internet is a tough place to get noticed, that’s for sure. This is probably more true now than it’s ever been.

Writers often see their writing as the end product, but when it comes to building 1,000 true fans the real product is the writer. That’s not how I like to see it (or how I view myself), but that’s how it works.

One of the things that’s clear is that the people who successfully build up 1,000 true fans, or millions of subscribers on their YouTube channel, tend to be talented, great communicators, very presentable, incredibly hard working, effective self-promoters, highly motivated, and they understand exactly what their audience wants. The subtext to that last sentence is: they possess a specific skills-set and didn’t get there by chance.

2021–04–12


My current writing setup

I’m writing and editing in iA Writer (using the Quattro font). I plan the novel out as a simple bullet point list in Apple Notes. When I’m happy with the bullet point chapter-by-chapter list, I create an individual text (.txt) file for each chapter. I use a separate text file for the fact sheet, which includes basic character details and location information, etc, including relevant research. (This is for my reference, to ensure continuity, as I write the novel.) When I’m done, I join the .txt files together using Assembler.

2021–04–10


Success on the editing front

I (tentatively) think I might have cracked the editing part of writing a novel. I’ve always found that phase to be the most challenging. And now, as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of the writing process, it might even be my favourite part of writing a novel.

What’s caused this about face?

Probably two things. First, I think I’m getting better at it, which always helps the motivation. And, secondly, it feels easier. I’m sure a lot of this comes down to practice, knowing what I’m doing, and having a consistent approach (rather than continually chopping and changing).

2021–04–10


‘Palm Springs’

Palm Springs (2020) is a riff on Groundhog Day , combining a science fiction time travel loop with a romantic comedy. It has a high 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes (which seems a little high to me considering that Citizen Kane is 99%). Although it’s a low budget $5M production it successfully makes the most of its budget and feels like it cost significantly more.

The script is tightly written and it playfully explores the clichés, and the time loop metaphors (where the protagonist inevitably learns the true meaning of life along the way). Palm Springs mixes the time loop story with bar room philosophy and the bawdy humour of a 90s college movie.

2021–04–10


‘The Water Knife’

The Water Knife (2015) is a dystopian, cli-fi, biopunk novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. It takes place in a near-future Southern US when society has fractured under the effects of global warming and economic decline. This is a world in which America has lost its geo-political dominance.

The novel follows many of the themes from Bacigalupi’s short stories in the collection Pump Six (2008), and his novels The Windup Girl (2009), and Ship Breaker (2010).

Bacigalupi writes hard science fiction in a literary type of style. There’s a strong focus on the world building and the psychological inner life of his protagonists. His descriptions are often intricate and lavish. His work deals with the pervasive effects of climate change, genetic enhancements, big business, and American decline.

The Windup Girl was set in 23rd Century Thailand. It featured a genetically modified female sex-worker. Her tragic story is one of exploitation, existing as a commodity for customers to buy. Her character formed the emotional core of the novel (which was developed from his 2003 short story The Fluted Girl) and later sections (which don’t feature her) are less engaging. In The Water Knife the characters experience similar feelings of desperation and powerlessness, and few options to escape.

Bacigalupi’s vision of the future is a grim one, revolving around the decadence and dystopian exploitation of a business / criminal overclass who carry out their business and leisure activities without recrimination, while the underclass struggles to survive.

The Water Knife resonates with other cli-fi novels. Rob Hart’s The Warehouse (2020) alludes to the same negative effects of big business and global warming. Although nuanced, it deals with the subject in a more genre-like way, with a defined plot structure and story shape. The result is an easier and more satisfying read.

There’s something about Bacigalupi’s novels that’s strangely amorphous and hard to absorb. Maybe it comes down to them being more like literary fiction with less emphasis on plot, or perhaps it’s their hard science fiction bias towards information overload? Sometimes writing can be incredibly rich and sophisticated, and yet, paradoxically, less engaging. It can be too refined, or over-edited to the point where the prose lacks a rawness of character or an easy immediacy.

Some of Bacigalupi’s short stories like The People of Sand and Slag (2004) have a simpler, more genre-like style. They may reflect an earlier approach or be specifically tailored to reflect the protagonist’s voice. Like The Windup Girl, The Water Knife was also developed from a short story — in this case it was The Tamarisk Hunter (2006). This might be why his novels have the tonal vibe of a novel-length short story?

Omar El Akkad’s American War (2017) takes place after a second American civil war. It has a similar atmosphere, the South as a 1930s-like dustbowl, poverty, and decline. It also has a literally prose style. Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi novel New York 2140 (2017) deals with a post-climate-change New York. Like The Water Knife, global warming accentuates the struggle for survival, and big power politics.

Although different in their own ways, these novels share common elements. They often shift between the power class and the powerless. They incorporate multiple characters and explore how they are adapting to the new reality.

The Water Knife has been likened to Chinatown (for its Neo-Noir tone), Dune (water as a quasi-religious element), A Clockwork Orange (for its invented vocabulary), and Mad Max (a violent desert dystopia where water is as precious as gold). It isn’t an easy read with its opaque structure and dark subject matter, but it’s a must read for anyone interested in cli-fi and eco-disaster science fiction.

2021–04–10


‘The Endless’

The Endless (2017) is a low budget science fiction horror directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, with the directors also doing double duty in the two lead roles.

The story is about two brothers who receive an old video in the post, recordings from their days as members of a ‘UFO death cult’. They decide to go back and investigate the old community that they were once part of. One of the brothers is sceptical of the community. The other sees them as harmless kooks.

They smoke the locally grown ‘flower’ and reality blurs with the cult’s strange beliefs — but this is only the beginning.

The film is an odd mishmash. It’s part independent film about about two brothers coming to terms with a childhood trauma, part science fiction, and part surreal college movie — Donnie Darko meets Lost with a bit of El Topo thrown in.

The first half of the film plays it straight with a mixture of the mundane, poignant moments, and dry comedy. Then it descends into the fantastic.

The Endless feels like it’s trying to do a bit of everything and in the process (especially the second half), doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It might have been a better film if it was less ambitious, and the special effects budget wouldn’t also have been spread so thin.

2021–04–09


‘Synchronic’

When a series of bodies are discovered, with grim echoes of Seven, two paramedics are forced to come to terms with the reality of a designer drug that makes users travel in time.

The science fiction horror Synchronic (2019) has a kind of Donnie Darko school of time travel logic about it, so don’t ask too many questions. It’s a mixed bag of family drama, missing child story, paramedic buddy tale, mystery story, time travel exploration, and sacrificial friendship. Anthony Mackie’s solid performance keeps all the various elements together.

2021–04–09


The five stages of British science fiction and fantasy

The horror of scientific invention

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a remarkable gothic novel and science fiction and fantasy story. Frankenstein poses one of the biggest questions — what if a person becomes ‘god’ and creates life? What happens then?

The answer is that nothing really changes. That new life has a will of its own, it has its own motivations and emotions. Things get more complicated. Once we create life, we no-longer control that life.

Why was Mary Shelley, of all people, writing science fiction? She came up with the idea when she was 18, at a fireside storytelling in the presence of Byron. She was brought up surrounded by Bohemian artists and poets and she had a close relationship with death and loss during her life. Published anonymously, Frankenstein provided an outlet for her dark vision, and it popularised the idea of technology running out of control.

The uncertain promise

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) the society of the future is refined and made more efficient, much like a factory production line. But in its attainment of the shiny new arena, humanity will lose something of itself. In Brave New World the culture of this future society is more shocking than the technology it possesses. The whole of society has turned into Frankenstein’s monster.

A retreat from the abyss

J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), and The Lord of the Rings (1968) is an escape from industrialisation and mass destruction of the two world wars. It’s a return to a simpler world, the eternal fight of good against evil. It evokes the English shires that featured so heavily in English Second World War propaganda (the perception of the countryside as the heart of all things English).

The Gormenghast trilogy, by Mervyn Peake, includes Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). It’s a series about the pomposity of rites and rituals, much of it takes place in a isolated and decaying society, followed by a visit to a futureopolis where the protagonist wonders if Gormenghast might have been the byproduct of his imagination (a lost world, much like the pre-War England might have seemed to many English people after the Second World War).

A new fear

In the post-War world the only certainty is uncertainty. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) the good intentions of English socialism have been hijacked by hate politics, turning a rational-based movement for social improvement and enlightenment into a quasi-religious hate cult. There is no ideological right or wrong. The only truth is the party exercising its power.

It’s not just the overzealous implementation of bad ideas or manipulations of language that are causing the problems… In John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951) nature itself has conspired against humanity. Lights in the sky are blinding the population and walking plants are unleashing their own retribution. This is the eco-disaster science fiction and fantasy story. Harking back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, our inventiveness has a sting in its tail.

The magician

In a world of depressing problems, and an encroaching new millennium, we need an escape from reality, to go back to that magical place where heroes possess special powers. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is not quite a full-on return to the shires of The Hobbit, but nonetheless, Harry Potter takes place in an old-fashioned and ‘reassuringly’ wood-panelled environment, a private school for magicians. The hero is a kind of child Hobbit, an ordinary person, who isn’t actually ordinary. This echoes our own notions and hopes about ourselves, that although we are ordinary there might be something special, magical even, about us.


(Note: I considered adding Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) as the first item on this list but, for various reasons, I decided against it. C S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (1950 – 1956) could also be added to ‘A retreat from the abyss’.)

2021–04–06


Surprise or suspense?

Pierre Boulle’s novel, Planet of the Apes, has a brilliant reveal that could only have been achieved in a novel. It would have been impossible to pull it off in a film. The Planet of the Apes film has its own reveal. It’s clever, but different to the novel’s.

The reveal in storytelling is a revelatory insight that gives the reader or viewer a dramatic and unexpected new perspective about the story. The Matrix has a well known reveal, as does Dark City, and Star Wars.

The reveal can take place in different ways:

Incorporating a reveal in a story means the element can’t be used as a device for creating suspense (because it has to be kept secret, until the reveal). A reveal is a surprise. Suspense gives away the surprise in exchange for tension (the reader or viewer not knowing when it’s going to happen).

The reveal in The Matrix is integral to the story. The story wouldn’t make sense without it. The story in Star Wars could make sense without the reveal, but it adds to the impact. Because reveals take effort to setup and might not provide a satisfactory payoff, they can be risky.

2021–04–05


‘Chaos Walking’

Adapting the novel The Knife of Never Letting Go into the film Chaos Walking (2021) was always going to be a challenge. The protagonist is incredibly weak in the novel, and that doesn’t translate easily into a sympathetic movie character. The novel also features a phenomena called the ‘Noise’ where male thoughts are externalised, and represented graphically by using stylised text. In the film ‘Noise’ is visualised as a kind of shimmer or Aurora Borealis around a person’s head (a flame in the case of the Preacher).

In the novel Todd is thirteen, but in the film he’s a man. The script does not make allowances for this. To compensate for such a weak protagonist there’s a ridiculous fight scene with a water creature that’s been inserted into the script to make Todd more credible.

The ‘Noise’ works better as an idea in the novel than as a literal effect in the film. It’s intrusive and it distracts from enjoying the performances. The film really needed its own solution. I think, making it an audio-only echo effect without the visuals would have been better. As it stands, the main character and the star of the film is the ‘Noise’. It could have done with something less obvious, something more tangental and poetic.

Novels can incorporate big ideas with plotted action in ways that films are unable, because they work differently. A novel has tens of thousands of words to get its points across. Chaos Walking has 109 minutes. This is the classic challenge faced by big concept action films.

Ideas need time to be explored. They have to be treated in a nuanced way otherwise they seem crass. Action, on the other hand, is immediate and mindless. It’s tricky mixing the two. One solution is to prioritise one over the other, and to change the pace when they switch. Another cinematic solution is to visually allude to the big ideas without getting into the trap of actually explaining them. The end of Planet of the Apes (1968) is a classic example of this.

There’s so much stuff to shoehorn from the novel into the script. It doesn’t have time to deal with the issues or the pace to be a decent action film. The problem here is that the script has interpreted the novel too literally.

It’s a shame really because, apart from the imposing ‘Noise’ visuals, the rest of the CGI is excellent. The acting from Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley is great, even if the script doesn’t give them anywhere to take their characters. They don’t develop a romantic relationship or a classic buddy movie friendship. Because of this, their scenes together fall flat and there is little for the audience to invest in.

It gets worse at the end. The climactic action sequences are over so fast that they don’t have the cathartic impact they deserve. The final scene is engineered to lead into a sequel. It wants the audience to buy into the next film, but it doesn’t give us anything to buy into emotionally in this one.

I was entertained, but it’s underwhelming. The story isn’t satisfying because so much of it has been concocted as a teaser (like the encounter with the alien Spackle) or self-sabotaged (by deliberately holding back on character development and saving material for a sequel). The critical reception has been largely negative and its rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 22%. The script’s focus on acting as a setup for further films is infuriating because a sequel looks unlikely to go ahead. With the actors hobbled by the script, the overbearing ‘Noise’ becomes the films defining element, and that’s unfortunate because it’s annoying.

The film cost $85M and it was quoted as being ‘unreleasable’. After $15M of extensive reshoots (taking the production cost up to $100M), the film made $17M at the box office. This is one of those ‘production hell’ films that feels like a missed opportunity.

2021–04–02


‘The Kid Detective’

This Neo-Noir detective story from 2020 is about a child detective who is haunted by a case that he could never solve.

As an adult he is still working in the same small town, his life on hold, respected by no one, working on trivial cases, and still traumatised by the past. It’s a film about the loss of innocence and not being able to grow up.

The Kid Detective follows the expected genre tropes of Noir: the washed up loser detective, a tricky case to solve, the main character being given the runaround, although this isn’t a pointless quest. And, as usual, one of the real mysteries he needs to solve is getting over himself.

The film is shot in a straightforward, contemporary style, in colour, without any Noir visual references. It’s an attractive film to watch, and the performances are solid, which is a good thing because it’s a slow burner.

The film has been compared to Brick. I think it is more together, and a more satisfying story. It follows in a long cinematic tradition, from Under the Silver Lake, going back to The Long Goodbye, and The Third Man. These are stories about shattered loyalty, people in positions of trust who are not what they appear to be, realising ones own limitations — lost or alienated protagonists observing the world around them.

The Kid Detective confidently navigates and expands on this story form. It’s a homage that surprises and adds a contemporary twist, while staying clear of cliché or delving into parody.

2021–04–02


From 1921 to 2021

From the perspective of a writer interested in Science Fiction world building — how much does the world really change in 100 years? What would it be like for someone from 1921 to visit 2021?

Part of the difficulty with this thought experiment is separating the shock of the person being relocated in time from the shock of stepping into and experiencing today’s environment.

Yes, it’s just a silly idea, but the answer depends of multiple variables. Who the person is, how wealthy they were, and what part of 2021 they visit.

For someone from a deprived 1920s British working class slum, a visit to a wealthy person’s house in 1921 would be an eye-opener in itself, let along being transported to 2021.

Someone landing is 2021 Las Vegas is going to get a very different experience than someone finding themselves in the Lake District in 2021.

What this means is that people live within personal experiences of relative ‘advancement’ and ‘progress’. 2021 would look a lot less intimidating for a wealthy Manhattan socialite from 1921 than it might perhaps be for a rural farmworker.

There are people today who are living ‘in the future’ in some respects. Not literally of course, but they are enjoying things in their life that most of us will only begin to access in the future.

Sometimes things turn full circle, aspects of the past return in the future (for example, London smog could possibility return in a slightly different way due to pollution levels). Cultures and fashions change, they are cyclical, they can go from toleration to intolerance, from one style to another and back again, demographics change, educational norms shift, attitudes alter, and so on.

But, a significant amount of the environment (especially in the UK) hasn’t changed as much as we might think. How much of 2021 would only look superficially different to someone from 1921? The cars are more advanced but work in much the same way. Would they shock someone from 1921?

Most of the principles about the technology could probably be explained quite easily. Would today’s mobile phone be ‘unthinkable’ to someone from 1921, or could they understand it as a Dick Tracy gadget? They had telephones, wireless radios, and cinema. The TV was invented in the late 1920s. And they had just been through a global pandemic.

What might be harder to explain is the cultural shift in terms of diversity and social behaviour. Or why people spend so much time looking at screens?

Raymond Loewy’s 1934 chart of design evolution showed how products become sleeker and more streamlined over time. Strangely, the female body also seems to physically slim down over time. What does that say? Did everyone drink from a goblet in 1300? Are we all swimming naked today, as the exclamation mark suggests? How true does his framework hold today? For mobile phones and TVs maybe, but can the same thing be said for all products? Why are we not all wearing white boiler suits and living in hive-like space-pods?

World building the future requires guesstimation. In some ways, it’s a lot easier to make assumptions about AI and self-driving cars than it is to fathom the culture of a future society. If we were travelling 100 years into the future, the culture might shock us more than the technology.

2021–04–01


‘Made in Italy’

In Made in Italy (2020), a father and his estranged son return to Italy to fix up their old family home. Can they come to terms with the past and restart their troubled relationship?

Liam Neeson stars with his son Micheál Richardson. This is a by-the-numbers family melodrama, nonetheless it’s a timely, feel-good movie.

It’s taken some prickly reviews for being overly sentimental, but I thought that it was entertaining. It’s not a film you should take too seriously, but we all need some schmaltz now and again.

2021–03–31


Assembler

Assembler is a simple utility for macOS. It does one thing, and one thing only. It merges separate .txt files together.

It works by dragging a bunch of .txt files into the app (or selecting all files within a folder) and it converts those .txt files into one .txt file. (I should mention that it works with Fountain, Markdown, txt, csv, tex, css, and js file formats.)

Why would anyone need this, you might be asking? Assembler is useful for writers who use a text editor and a workflow where they have multiple chapters managed as individual .txt files in a folder.

Before assembling, files can be rearranged in the app, which helpfully also shows the first line of the text in the file. If your chapter file names are sequential 1.txt, 2.txt, 3.txt, etc, they automatically appear in order.

2021–03–30


‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

The film Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) is Han Solo’s backstory, which leads into the original 1977 Star Wars film. It’s an enjoyable action adventure romp centred around a heist caper. The story goes some way to reflect the personality and character of Han Solo from the 1977 film.

Filling the shoes of Harrison Ford is a pretty major ask, and while Alden Ehrenreich is fine as Han Solo, he never actually feels like a younger Harrison Ford playing ‘Han Solo’, if you know what I mean, which is probably what a lot of the audience really wants.

The film has remarkable CGI and action sequences. The story makes sense and there are no boring parts. So, there’s a lot going on in the entertainment department, and it has a playful sense of fun. But the film was a box office flop. It cost $275 million to produce and it took $393.2 million. Apparantly, it needed to take $500M to recoup the full production costs and to return a profit. It ended up losing an estimated $76.9 million. [1]

It’s a solid dramatisation of a story, and it feels like it overcame the initial production woes and a change of director. But maybe it didn’t have enough to satisfy a global audience? By that, I mean it didn’t perform well in China (it only made $10m in that market). China has become the lynchpin signifier for global success in a Hollywood blockbuster.

[1] According to Deadline Hollywood.

2021–03–30


Oolong

I start the day with a cup of coffee. Recently I’ve been drinking tea during the day. It’s lighter and more refreshing.

A while back my tea of choice used to be Japanese rice tea. Then I switched completely over to coffee.

Recently, I’ve started drinking Oolong tea. High quality teas are expensive and Oolongs are no exception. They are produced using a craft process that involves the specialist skills akin to wine production.

While there are some wonderful speciality Oolongs out there, like Phoenix Honey Orchid, they come at a price. At the moment I’m drinking Tie Guan Yin (Chinese Iron Goddess) from The Rare Tea Company.

Part of the fun of drinking tea is getting to use a tea pot. They are enjoyable things to own and use. I have a couple at home. A simple white porcelain tea pot and a glass one. They aren’t expensive or particularly fancy.

Drinking tea can become a meditative experience. In a world dominated by screens, switching-off and having a simple cup of tea can provide refreshment and a relaxing break.

2021–03–28


‘The Rise of Skywalker’

The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is the final J J Abrams Star Wars film and the final film in the Star Wars series.

It has to tie together a number of loose ends and bring the Star Wars story to a conclusion. Its satisfaction rating is one of the lowest of the Star Wars films. On Rotten Tomatoes is has a satisfaction rating of 51% (based on 507 reviews).

The first half of the film seems unnecessarily complicated. It chops and changes from one scene to another (although this is arguably a Star Wars trait — parallel storylines and the wipe cut from one part of the story to another). The first half of the movie feels like a tease, making the audience wait for the real story to begin.

The Rise of Skywalker includes the usual Star Wars themes of family obligation, father and child relationships — blood bonds, versus characters choosing to be on the side of good or the side of hate.

This Star Wars film has a touch of the superhero genre about it, Lord of the Rings, and even Frankenstein. What marrs The Rise of Skywalker more than anything is its eagerness to be a global product for a global audience.

The overly complicated first half is built around making the film a story with global appeal. To do this, it has to spend time introducing characters that reflect a worldwide audience. The studio was no doubt hoping to replicate the success of Avatar which did incredibly well in Asia. But in trying to please a lucrative global audience it’s lost something.

2021–03–28


‘Rams’

Rams (2018) is a documentary directed by Gary Hustwit. It explores the work of designer Dieter Rams, who is famous for his work at Braun from the 1950s to 1995.

He’s known for his minimalist design, which influenced Jonny Ive who worked at Apple. While his product design is remarkable his overall design philosophy, which he developed in the mid-1970s, is probably more important.

Less but better.

After the Second World War, the Braun brothers believed in using modern design to build a better world. There’s a strong Bauhaus and Ulm Design school influence in the early electronics products they produced.

Many of the designs, like radios and record players, were designed using modern materials like clear plexiglass. They replaced consumer electronics items built using wooden cabinets in a style of Art Deco furniture. Braun’s products were often mobile devices, which the owner could take and use anywhere.

Rams wasn’t just a designer of record players, he was also a music buff. He was into the 1970s euro-jazz scene that was popular in Frankfurt at the time.

Rams had strong views about consumerism and ecological sustainability:

Good design is environmentally friendly.

He believes that products should be built to last, and that gimmicky and faddish design tends to make products look outdated faster.

A design shouldn’t take over and dominate the space. The people within it should dominate the space. For this reason his colours were often muted, white, black, grey, and beige. Our relationship with technology is one where people come first and design remains in the background. Architecture, design, consumer products, and technology are there to serve us, not to dominate our lives and living spaces.

Good design is as little design as possible.

In today’s eco-conscious world, his message is even more relevant than ever.

2021–03–28


‘Serenity’

Serenity (2005) is a lowish budget space western. It occupies that challenging place between low budget and big budget. The script really demands better special effects, but the budget didn’t cover it. (Apparently, the special effects budget was lower than the TV series Firefly, which Serenity was based on.) With a budget of $39 million it took $40.4 million.

I’m not an expert on film financing but it probably needed more than that to break even, taking into account paying back interest on loans, and promoting the finished product. Annihilation (2018), for example, might have faced a similar conundrum. It had a budget of $40 - 55 million, and took $43.1 at the box office. While Ex Machina had a more limited $15 million budget and took $36.9 million. A limited scope can mean that the limited special effects budget is used to greater overall effect. Likewise, if Serenity had gone more in the same direction and limited its scope, it might have made a better film, even if it would have had a different story.

Almost any film with a hobbled special effects budget is going to struggle to be taken seriously. And then, as a knock on effect, it probably won’t get the promotion it deserves either. Imagine Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with zilch special effects budget, it wouldn’t be the same film.

With that caveat, and the fact that the plot is underwhelming, the banter between the crew is probably the biggest strength of Serenity, and probably why it has cult status with its fans.

2021–03–27


‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

The original Star Wars films had colourful characters, dramatic action, adventure, epic scale, twists, and remarkable world building:

These were later followed by the disappointing The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith(2005).

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is five years old now and attention on it has died down. I watched the J J Abrams film without expecting too much (echoing the disappointment of the previous three George Lucas films), but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s definitely a return to form. It might be heresy to say this to fervent Star Wars fans (maybe not), but I’d say, watch the three original films and then go straight to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set thirty years after Return of the Jedi. The Galactic Empire has collapsed and been replaced by the First Order. It many ways the film is a retelling of Star Wars (1977). The CGI has improved, especially the 3D physicality (unlike the CGI in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones). in Star Wars: The Force Awakens everything works, the acting, the story, and the world building. And it links nicely back to the original 1977 film. This is reflected in the films ratings. It has a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 439 reviews), and in the film’s financial success.

It’s difficult not to look at a film like this without mentioning the financial side of the story, because this is a huge blockbuster and marketing franchise.

It cost $306 million to make and it took just over $2 billion. It made an estimated $780 million profit (which shows how much money went into the marketing and promotion).

For some context, here are the top ten grossing films:

I’m being deliberately reductionist, but they are, in order: a science fiction story about blue aliens, a superhero film, a sinking ship tragedy, a science fiction and fantasy space opera, a superhero movie, a science fiction story about bringing dinosaurs back to life, a children’s animation about talking animals, another superhero film, a car chase film, and a children’s animation about a fairytale princess with magical powers.

The list of the top ten most successful media entertainment franchises is also interesting. Star Wars comes in at number 5. Wizarding World is number 10.

Largest total media franchises:

Looking at this list, I’m struck by the fact that it’s dominated by characters aimed at children. Who would have thought that Hello Kitty would be the second largest franchise of all time? Not me.

Getting a story right is a tricky challenge at the best of times, but getting a story like Star Wars: The Force Awakens right for a global audience, and creating a blockbuster that’s also a huge franchise is something remarkable.

2021–03–26


‘61 Hours’

61 Hours is number 14 in the Jack Reacher series. It’s not considered one of Lee Child’s finest novels. Part of this comes down to the fact that Lee Child mixed things up a little, which strikes me as a useful way of keeping the series fresh. Some good people die in the story and there’s no romantic sub-plot. It says something about Lee Child that he can pull off an incredibly readable and satisfying story in one of his less positively received novels. I certainly enjoyed reading it.

Like other Jack Reacher novels, it follows a defined structure:

The novel is interesting because it shows Reacher in a slightly different light. He’s more of a loner in this story and the tone is one of loss tinged with melancholy. Like Lee Child’s other small town stories, this is more of a slow buildup. It takes its time and while it attempts to make up for the slow pace at the end it doesn’t quite pull it off. This one is more mystery than action, which is arguably the key quality of all the Reacher novels, a good old fashioned mystery yarn. There’s a feeling that a romance might have happened, but it never takes place. The ending is abrupt, provoking unresolved questions about what might have happened to Jack Reacher.

2021–03–24


On writing a novel

This is a quick recap of things I’ve learned while I was writing a science fiction novel. I think most of it probably applies to any genre of fiction, and maybe some of it even applies to literary fiction. This is a ‘notes-to-self’ post as much as anything else.

Pre-writing

There’s the pre-writing phase:

The thinking and planning is exactly what it implies. It’s working out how the story works, the plot structure, the characters, world building, and the research. The tangible outcome for me is a numbered list that explains in a few words what happens in each chapter.

Every writer has their own way of doing the pre-writing phase from not writing anything down and being completely spontaneous, to writing an elaborate outline, which is basically a summarised version of the novel.

Writing phases

There are three phases to the writing:

The draft (or first draft) is about getting something down. Don’t worry too much about the quality, focus on getting it completed. Avoid going back and rewriting during the drafting phase. (It’s okay to change glaring problems like getting a character’s name wrong and factual details like that.)

Rewriting is where I replace my first ideas with my second ideas. First ideas are often flawed or can be improved on. The rewriting phase is also where I improve the language. The draft resembles Young Adult fiction, but the rewriting phase elevates it and makes it more sophisticated. I’m also rewriting the draft for clarity, to make sure that things make sense. This often involves explaining ideas that exist in my head into words that are easy to understand, and accurately represent those images. I’m also ensuring that the sentences read smoothly. I am inserting plot details, hooks, and posing questions to make the text more dynamic.

The polishing phase is a basic read though, looking for simple typos and changing the odd word. It’s mainly a final quality control check.

Momentum

I’m not sure if I believe in the need to write every day, but I’ve found that it’s beneficial to have some form of inertia. This is especially true of both the draft and the rewriting phases. It’s similar to how runners get into a rhythm when they are running. Push yourself without burning out with a stitch.

Maybe this one affects some people more than others. I need a clear sense of knowing where I am within the process. It motivates me to know that I’m editing paragraph 75 of a 150 paragraph chapter. It’s also motivational to set myself comfortably obtainable targets. This centres around knowing how much work I can get through in a writing session and extrapolating that into knowing when I can expect to finish that phase of the writing.

Rewards and breaks

Writing a novel is hard work, especially the rewriting phase which can feel like wading through treacle. It requires discipline. Another aspect of pacing myself is taking breaks and rewards. I might, for example, break a rewriting session into two parts and make a tea or coffee between them. When I’ve completed the target for the writing session target, I reward myself. It could be a something like a beer or a trivial thing like a writing a blog post (weirdly enough, that’s like switching off for me), or going for a walk.

Tools of the trade

There’s a certain ritual to the writing process. It’s good to enjoy the writing, especially if it is hard work. It’s good to get a sense of satisfaction from the experience. The tools of the trade can become part of the ritual, and part of the satisfaction. They can indirectly help with the motivation. The tools of the trade can be pretty much anything, from the software I’m using to write, to the room I’m writing in and the desk I’m writing on. None of it needs to be particularly sophisticated, fancy, or expensive. But I do have to be comfortable with it, and it has suit my writing process, taste, and habits.

Blocks and low-motivation

I’m not sure if I believe that there’s such a thing as ‘writer’s block’. It’s like believing in an ill omen, it’s a superstition. If I’m not writing there are usually reasons why.

2021–03–24


‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) looks good for a film released in 1982. It’s constructed from new footage edited in with old film noir clips. The producers hired technicians who’d worked on the original movies to get the right match for the black and white film, the lighting, and the costumes.

The result is a pastiche and a homage that works well. It’s a funny film although some of the sexual gags don’t translate as well from 1982 into a post world.

The film plays on the clichés of film noir, the silly handwritten clues on torn pieces of paper, the flirtatious small talk, stereotypical killers, and Nazi henchmen.

Steve Martin’s comic character ensures that the film never gets too arty for its own good. The comedy is on the silliness level akin to a Naked Gun film.

The continual switching back and forth between vintage clips and Steve Martin’s send-ups comes at a price. It stops the film from changing pace or going beyond its one joke. As a result, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a one trick pony, even if it’s a mostly funny one trick pony that’s been cleverly put together.

2021–03–24


‘Chronical: 2067’

A glitchy script makes for a disjointed story with glaring inconsistencies and holes that doesn’t make much sense. A weak protagonist and the melodramatic over-acting does not help things along either.

The story takes place in an oxygen starved future where the highly polluted atmosphere has killed off Earth’s plant life. Time is running out for humanity. The result is an eco-disaster meets time travel story with an obligatory time travel twist at the end.

The problem is that the script spends far too much time doing things because they seem like cool ideas, instead of any of it contributing to a cohesive and satisfying story. It’s schmaltzy and the script makes the protagonist a constant victim and thus difficult to believe in as a hero who can save the world.

Characters need counterbalancing qualities that pull them in different directions to create inner tension: strong but sensitive, superhuman but vulnerable, well meaning but deluded, etc. They have a power and a limitation, or a positive and negative aspect to their character. The protagonist in Chronical: 2067 (2020) is weak and naive. He is passive without posessing a counterbalancing trait. Having an ineffective over-emotional hero is a problem. It’s annoying. Obviously the idea is that the audience is supposed to empathise with his sensitivity and humanity, but it has the opposite effect.

With a limited number of central characters who have to do double duty and perform different roles within the story, and the heavy handed foreshadowing, you can see the surprises coming. There’s very little chemistry between the characters and the dialogue is clunky. This feels like it could have been a better movie if it has been a lot less ambitious, taking an approach more like Prospect. The overall result feels like a missed opportunity.

2021–03–21


‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) is the director’s cut of Justice League (2017).

I spent the first few minutes messing with my television convinced that the TV had developed a problem. Then I thought there must be something wrong with the streaming service. No. This film is actually supposed to be in non-widescreen format. I’m stupefied as to why, because this is an epic scale superhero film with a large CGI budget. It was made for widescreen. But, as it turns out, this was the least of its problems.

I found the film disjointed, rambling, and impossible to like. It was like watching something from an alien world. Having just watched Future World, which currently holds a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (and I managed to get to the end of it), Justice League’s unrelenting tedium made it impossible to finish.

Maybe it’s because the protagonists are known and widely loved that no attempt was made to make the audience fall in love with them again? They had no depth or charm. This is all the more bewildering considering the all star cast. These stories are all about the CGI. But the CGI doesn’t even feel real. It’s like watching an animation.

Apparently, there was a lot of online trolling surrounding the film. I haven’t followed it in detail, but that strikes me as sad. This is just a film, a work of entertainment. It’s okay to like or dislike a film.

The financials on Justice League (2017) were staggering. It had a budget of $300 million. It took $657.9 million at the box office. Apparently, it needed to take $750 million to break even. I’m guessing… but does that mean they spent $450 million promoting it? And this was before the Coronavirus pandemic.

This film is indicative of where the film industry is right now. Theatrical releases have to be bigger, and bigger. They’re dominated by superhero films. The bigger and bigger phenomenon is strikingly apparent, even in so-called ‘intelligent blockbusters’ like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Not only are films getting bigger, the budgets are getting bigger, and the pressure to perform at the box office is bigger. Almost everything else has been pushed to the side, onto the streaming platforms. This, combined with Coronavirus, feels like an extraordinary situation for the film industry.

Is it a temporary glitch? Or have we hit a crisis point in American storytelling?

2021–03–20


‘Prospect’

Prospect (2018) is a low budget science-fiction film about a father and daughter team who take a shuttle down to a planet’s surface in the search of valuable gem-like orbs. To further complicate matters the planet’s surface is covered by a toxic forrest, and no one can be trusted in this brutal environment.

This is a 1970s aesthetic, retro-styled science fiction story. Everything from the spacecraft’s interior, to the biohazard suits look 1970s. The visual treatment of the film is muted and pastel, reminding me of 1970s film stock.

Prospect has a science fiction Western feel about it. One of the characters even uses 19th Century-ish language. This is a slow, but watchable film, with some decent visuals and bursts of action.

It’s really Cee’s film (the daughter is played by Sophie Thatcher). But it feels like the actors are held back by a script that lives on the surface and fails to build empathy for the characters. The story isn’t particularly satisfying either. But as a $4 million production goes it’s a lot more watchable than films I’ve watched costing $50 million.

2021–03–20


‘Future World’

This is the kind of film that gives the post-apocalyptic story a bad name. It makes Waterworld look like fine art. The cinematography and acting talent has been squandered by a substandard script, gratuitous violence, and a nonsense plot lacking a satisfying story. It’s as if a series of action scenes have been thrown together in a random sequence. The effect resembles that of a visual collage, an elongated music video whose target audience is comprised of thirteen-year-old boys.

Future World (2018) is set in a sub-Mad Max: Fury Road type of world with zero effort to do anything new, or to have fun parodying it like Turbo Kid. The result is a film that takes itself far too seriously and could do with a sense of humour. It’s a cringe watch that currently has a 0% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

2021–03–20


Genre: opening paragraph examples

Ian Fleming, ‘From Russia with Love’

The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.

From Russia with Love is famous for withholding the appearance of Bond until later in the novel. While we are waiting for Bond to turn up we are treated to some of Fleming’s best writing. We have a naked man sunning himself by a pool, like a crocodile. We soon learn that he’s a Soviet assassin tasked with killing James Bond. This is a slow, low key start. We’re meeting the antagonist. He’s a mirror of Bond, a ruthless, elite assassin. It takes time for the reader to know why he is important. We’re in the backstory, gradually being fed the bigger picture.


Ian Fleming, ‘Diamonds are Forever’

With its two fighting claws held forward like a wrestler’s arms the big pandanus scorpion emerged with a dry rustle from the finger-sized hole under the rock.

This is, once again, holding back on introducing Bond to the reader. Instead we start with a close up of a scorpion. Ian Fleming is playing with the reader’s expectations, creating tension, it’s a cinematic opening, holding back on revealing where we are and why we are here. It’s a deliberate attempt to avoid the scene where Bond walks into an office and he is given a new mission.


Ian Fleming, ‘Dr No’

Punctually at six o’clock the sun set with a last yellow flash behind the Blue Mountains, a wave of violet shadow poured down Richmond Road, and the crickets and tree frogs in the fine gardens began to zing and tinkle.

This is another slow start, revealing a calm normality that will soon be overturned, foreshadowing something ominous. Something bad is going to happen and Bond will appear later to sort it out.


Stephen King, ‘The Gunslinger’

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

This almost biblically simple opening resonates with the Old American West, but it’s the start of a Fantasy novel. This feels like the opening of a chase sequence. There are no bullets being fired, just yet, but it promises that. It’s a great opening because it encapsulates the novel in a single line. Let the chase begin.


Lee Child, ‘One Shot’

Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through the city. Or, maybe the easiest. Because at five o’clock on a Friday nobody pays attention to anything. Except the road ahead.

Something’s going down. There are a lot of questions being posed here. Who needs to move through the city unobserved, and why?


Lee Child, ‘Nothing to Lose’

The sun was only half as hot as he had known sun to be, but it was hot enough to keep him confused and dizzy. He was very weak. He had not eaten for seventy-two hours, or taken water for forty-eight.

Lee Child often poses questions in his opening paragraph and this one is no exception. What’s going on here? Why is the man ‘very weak’, not eaten for ‘seventy-two hours’ or had even a sip of water in the last forty-eight hours? Will this man live to tell his story?


Ted Lewis, ‘Get Carter’

The rain rained.

Get Carter is a classic British crime action novel. The language is really simple there’s not much in the way of wordiness here. This is a great example of the first paragraph serving only to take the reader to the second paragraph. And yet, in three words, I know what kind of story I’m in. And from the blunt and to-the-point opening language I’m guessing that the protagonist will be equally blunt and to-the-point.


Jo Nesbo, ‘The Bat’

Something was wrong.

Jo Nesbo starts the novel with a short paragraph that immediately presents the reader with a sense of danger. But we can relax, it’s only Harry Hole going through passport control.


Jo Nesbo, ‘The Thirst’

He stared into the white nothingness.

Here’s another false threat, which we find out in a few paragraphs later is just part of Harry Hole’s dream.


James S A Corey, ‘Leviathan Wakes’

The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.

We’re straight into the action with a named character, Julie Mao. Why has the Scopuli been ‘taken’ and why is Julie Mao expecting to die? She’s lasted eight days, so she must have considerable resilience.


Norman Mailer, ‘The Naked and the Dead’

Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.

‘Nobody could sleep’ is a brilliantly simple opening line. The whole paragraph provides a clear overview of what’s going to happen. It’s smart but not overly fancy. And that last line is a real hook. This is a war story that has the authorial tone of literary fiction.


Steig Larsson, ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’

Lisbeth Salander pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose and squinted from beneath the brim of her sun hat. She saw the woman from room 32 come out of the hotel side entrance and walk to one of the green-and-white-striped chaises-tongues.

This is a classic crime genre opening. We’re hanging with the protagonist. She’s named in the first sentence. How much do you bet that something is going to happen to the women in room 32? The question is, what and when? The suspense has already been set.


Gregg Hurwitz, ‘Orphan X’

After picking up a set of pistol suppressors from a nine-fingered armorer in Las Vegas, Even Smoak headed for home in his Ford pickup, doing his best not to let the knife wound distract him.

A busy day. If this opening paragraph doesn’t say action thriller, I don’t know what does. The reader is presented with the character’s almost casual, competence. This guy knows what he’s doing. He’s no fumbler. Like his name suggests, he probably smokes the bad guys, or appears and disappears mysteriously like smoke — and he is ‘doing his best not to let the knife wound distract him’. Enough said. We know what kind of hero this protagonist is. He’s almost superhuman.


Tom Wood, ‘The Hunter’

The target looked older than in the photographs. The glow from the streetlight accentuated the deep lines in his faced pallid, almost sickly complexion. To victor the man seemed on edge, either high on nervous energy or maybe just too much caffeine. But whatever the explanation, it wasn’t going to matter thirty seconds from now.

This is serious and slightly scary. However evil the ‘target’ might be, taking him out feels darkly menacing. Part of the interest lies in knowing where the author is going to take this. There has to be a good reason behind this action.


Blake Crouch, ‘Pines’

He came to lying on his back with sunlight pouring down into his face and the murmur of running water close by. There was a brilliant ache in his optic nerve, and a steady, painless throbbing at the base of his skull — the distant thunder of an approaching migraine. He rolled onto his side and pushed up into a sitting position, tucking his head between his knees. Sensed the instability of the world long before he opened his eyes, like its axis had been cut loose to teeter. His first deep breath felt like someone driving a steel wedge between his ribs on his high side, but he groaned through the pain and forced his eyes to open. His left eye must have been badly swollen, because it seemed like he was staring through a slit.

Sounds like this character is having a bad day, and it’s probably only going to get worse. We will find out soon enough. Once again, it poses loads of questions. Who is he? What’s just happened to him? The character is just ‘he’. Does he even know who he is?


Harlan Ellison, ‘A Boy and His Dog’

I was out with Blood, my dog. It was his week for annoying me; he kept calling me Albert. He thought that was pretty damned funny. Payson Terhune: ha ha.

Right in the first paragraph, we’re introduced to a talking dog with a dry sense of humour. We don’t know where we are, or what’s going on. There’s a hint of Huckleberry Finn in the language.


Mark Greaney, ‘The Grey Man’

A flash of light in the distant morning sky captured the attention of the Land Rover’s blood-soaked driver. Polarised Oakleys shielded his eyes from the brunt of the sun’s rays; still, he squinted through his windshields glare, desperate to identity the burning aircraft that now spun and hurtled towards the earth, a smouldering comet’s tail of black smoke left hanging above.

This has all there hallmarks of a genre action adventure. The named brands, ‘blood-soaked’ being mentioned in the first line. The violence has already started. There’s a burning aircraft falling out of the sky. Sounds like a bad day at work. Sounds like an action genre story.


Alistair MacLean, ‘The Golden Rendezvous’

My shirt was no longer a shirt but just a limp and sticky rag soaked with sweat. My feet ached from the fierce heat of the steel deck plates. My forehead, under the peaked white hat, ached from the ever-increasing constriction of the leather band that made scalping only a matter of time. My eyes ached from the steely glitter of selected sunlight from the metal, water and white-washed harbour buildings. And my throat ached, from pure thirst. I was acutely unhappy.

Although somewhat dated now, Alistair MacLean was my school days go-to action adventure writer of choice. This is another bad day at work introduction. He’s doing some work on a ship, an officer judging by his ‘peaked white hat’. He’s not a shirker, that’s for sure. There are four sentences that begin with ‘my’, and ‘ached’ is used four times. (My father said that repetition is poor man’s poetry.) The last line is interesting: ‘I was acutely unhappy’. Isn’t that obvious from the rest of the paragraph? One of the traits of genre fiction is that something hasn’t happened unless you say it’s happened.


Alistair MacLean, ‘Where Eagles Dare’

The vibrating clangour from the four great piston engines set teeth on edge and made an intolerable assault on cringing ear-drums. The decibel-level, Smith calculated, must have been about that found in a boiler factory, and one, moreover, that was working on overtime rates, while the shaking cold in that cramped, instrument-crowded flight deck was positively Siberian. On balance, he reflected, he would have gone for the Siberian boiler factory any time because, whatever its drawbacks, it wasn’t liable to fall out of the sky or crash into the mountainside which, in his present circumstances, seemed a likely enough, if not imminent contingency for all that the pilot of their Lancaster bomber appeared to care to the contrary. Smith looked away from the darkly opaque world beyond the windscreen where the wipers fought a useless battle with the driving snow and looked again at the man in the left-hand captain’s seat.

There’s a kind of overblown Baroque meets Shakespearean, a bombast and monumentality to the language. ‘Clangour’? ‘Cringing ear-drums’? ‘Shaking cold’? Fighting window wipers? What? How many times did Alistair MacLean rewrite this maximalist opening paragraph?[1] Quite a few, most likely. It’s completely bonkers. Alistair MacLean’s clearly having fun here. We’re being introduced to the central character, Smith, and asked some basic questions. Why are they in the plane? Where are they going?


[1] Geoff Dyer’s Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: On Where Eagles Dare brilliantly explores the film of the novel.

2021–03–20


The opening paragraph

The opening paragraph is a important part of a novel. But sometimes its importance is overemphasised, because all it has to to is take the reader to the second paragraph.

It does a number of things:

Literary fiction uses language to create a distinct voice and tone. It is where character and story merge with the language to create a literary experience.

In genre fiction the language stays in the background. It’s there to tell the story. Sometimes genre fiction uses a more exaggerated style or a conversational style, but it is secondary to delivering a coherent story.

Genre opening paragraphs

The opening paragraph of a genre novel can begin in a number of ways:

Usually the character is introduced and named right away, along with some unfolding action that’s they are involved in. With a series like the James Bond or Jack Reacher novels (where the reader already knows the protagonist), the writer can create tension by holding back on introducing the hero.

The story can begin with a large or small scope:

The close-up:

The big picture:

The pace can begin slowly (a low-key introduction), or jump straight into the action.

The slow start:

Jumping straight into the action:

Where does the story start?

Is the character named or unnamed?

A named character:

An unnamed character:

Does it use a simple, conversational, or an exaggerated tonal style?

Simple style:

Conversational style:

Exaggerated style:

2021–03–19


Authenticity

I bought a couple of cans of Sapporo beer. I haven’t had Sapporo for a while and thought I’d try it out. It said on the can that it was ‘imported’. When I got home I saw that it was brewed in Vietnam. It was Sapporo brand beer and it was ‘imported’, but it wasn’t the original Sapporo beer from Japan.

The beer tasted okay, but it wasn’t as nice as the Japanese Sapporo that I remembered.

We live in a world of branding, re-branding, copies, digital reproduction, outsourcing, licensing, marketing ‘experiences’, and simulation.

Back to the beer topic. I’m a fan of good beer, especially a decent pilsner. Becks beer is a decent mainstream German beer. Becks used to be marketed on the basis that it was brewed in Bremen, Germany and exported around the world. If you buy Becks in the UK, it’s brewed in the UK. It doesn’t taste like German Becks. British Becks isn’t a particularly great beer in my opinion. British drinkers might like it, because it tastes like any other nondescript, mass-market British-style lager. On the packaging it says ‘German brewing heritage’.

What does ‘heritage’ mean? The short answer is, not much.

YouTube is full of people building personal brands. The language of ‘personal brand’ is a overused business-cliché, but that’s fine. The problem comes when you try to work out the real experiences from the product placement, the affiliate linker, and the product ambassador. As with old school television, the audience only gets to see half the picture, most of the time we don’t get to look back at the camera and production crew behind it.

It’s tricky working out who’s sharing a genuine personal experience and who’s just there to sell something. Can they be the same thing?

Content and marketing have become so intertwined. It’s been going on for a decade or so. Content marketing came about as a way to make advertising feel more relevant to consumers, linking products to ‘experiences’, causes and issues.

Red Bull’s sponsorship / content marketing of Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 jump from space to Earth is often cited as a classic example of content marketing. Red Bull is an energy drink that’s marketed by associating the energy drink with sports and daring physical adventure. Back in 2012 content marketing seemed quite fresh, but in 2021 it feels like an old fashioned advertorial, or a Marlboro advert from the 1970s that uses an image of a cowboy travelling through a landscape to sell cigarettes. (The figure in the wild landscape is a Romantic concept that dates back to Casper David Friedrich.)

The jump from space, the Camel cigarette man loading a canoe, or the Marlboro man riding a horse through the wilderness, they all suggest rugged individualism, freedom — man Vs nature.

Coke-Cola was famously marketed as ‘the real thing’. On one level, a bottle of Coke-Cola is real because only a bottle of Coke-Cola can be a real bottle of Coke-Cola. What else is real about it? It’s marketing magic, that’s for sure. It also alludes to the fact that Coke was created in 1863 and it’s the original cola drink. Drinking a Coke-Cola is the ‘real’ experience because it’s not a rival cola created using a non-original formula.

Can Tesco cola be the ‘real thing’? How much can something be changed until it becomes something else? The ship of Theseus is a philosophical thought experiment. If every part of a ship is replaced with an identical component is it the same ship, or a new ship? At what point does one thing become another object?

There’s a whole area of philosophical debate about simulations and copies. Can an exact simulation of something effectively be the same thing? The art world had this debate with Walter Benjamin’s text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Andy Warhol. Can real art be created using found images and a commercial screen-printing process? Apparently, yes it can.

Before the Industrial Age everything was more-or-less bespoke, unique and distinctive. Marketing was invented during the industrial revolution to make mass-produced products, that all looked identical, have a unique quality.

Apple products and BMWs are marketed as luxury items, as works of virtual art, designed to possess sculptural lines, even though they’re mass-produced industrial objects. The simulation of luxury in contemporary product design was brilliantly covered by Deyan Sudjic in his book The Language of Things.

Thorstein Veblen (who coined the terms conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure) wrote in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) that, the things people do and own are really about showing off to others to assert their social status.

A Sapporo beer is a not just a nice beer, it’s a semiological signalling beacon.

Every action and every object is sending out semiological messages. Every ‘B’ grade celebrity who’s embracing a cause or an issue, is engaging in ‘virtue signalling’, communicating their moral status and ethical values to the world. There’s nothing particularly new about this. Powerful, wealthy, and often very brutal, aristocrats in the Middle Ages were desperate to portray themselves as pious people.

Writers are often advised to be authentic, to create authentic characters. What is an authentic writer? No one sets out to be fake. People do things for reasons that seem authentic to them. An authentic character is much easier to define, it’s a believable character. An authentic story is one that rings true and feels realistic. Science fiction often explores themes of authenticity by using virtual worlds, cloned people, and synthetic humans.

Sometimes it can be tricky working out if a person is acting in an authentic or inauthentic way. People deliberately try to convince others (and themselves) of their authenticity. Cultivating authenticity is a way of generating influence. Politicians try to appear authentic to generate trust and authority.

The ultimate authenticity is about being true to the values that we care about, and being confident enough to express those values. And yet we’re creatures of self-deception. Human behaviour is intermeshed with self-aggrandisement and bullshit. It takes skilful observation and self-reflection to sort the bullshit from the truth. As François de La Rochefoucauld observed in 1665 in Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales:

Our virtues are usually only vices in disguise.

2021–03–18


Writing setups

Writing setups are part curiosity and part nerdery. They’re pure ‘shop talk’ and ‘inside baseball’.

I enjoy reading about the writers I’m interested in, piecing together the life-jigsaw-puzzle that might have informed their work, learning about their writing experience and process — and their writing setup.

I wrote a post about old editions of The Paris Review(from the mid-1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s), which included interviews with writers. During that time writers enjoyed a much higher profile than they have nowadays. They were invited onto popular talk shows and they were profiled in mainstream magazines. Today’s late night chat shows almost exclusively feature celebrity actors and, to a lesser extent, popular musicians. It’s a palpable indication of how the role of the writer in society, writing, and publishing has changed.

The Paris Review interviews began with an introductory description of the writer within his or her environment. These descriptions were often based on the interviewer’s first impression when they met the author for the interview: the writer’s appearance, his or her demeanour, their home, the room they write in, their writing desk, and if they write by hand or use a typewriter.

These sections allowed readers to virtually meet the writer. It was a substitute for meeting the author in person, for readers who would probably never meet the author in real life. They were part fan info, part voyeurism, and part collegial experience sharing — setting the scene and tone for the remaining interview questions.

I found it interesting that Raymond Carver was driving a new Mercedes. He’d gone from ‘working class hero’ to middle-class success story. I was intrigued by J G Ballard’s discipline and his warning to anyone who was seriously thinking about writing. It’s reassuring to know that someone like Jack Kerouac (even after his success) struggled to fit his writing into a daily routine, having to creep around the house in the middle of the night. These details can be telling or they can be banal. They’re often both.

Either way, having a peek behind the scenes, tends to humanise revered writers while also revealing their quirky rituals. In a strange way, they affirm that writing comes from the mind and not from the type of desk or the brand of typewriter the author owns. And yet, as useless as this information is, it’s also weirdly compelling. It’s the stuff of detail that writers inject into their own fiction to create authenticity.

I have to admit that I’m curious about the writing setups of other writers. Most of the details are fluff, but they’re interesting. I think it comes down to a feeling that we have a privileged insight into an author’s life. It’s like being allowed into someone’s home. We have literally crossed a threshold between public and private. There’s always the hope that we are going to gain a precious insight. With writing, because it’s a usually a solitary activity that involves sitting in a room somewhere behind a closed door, it feels like getting a VIP pass backstage at a music concert or visiting Graceland for an Elvis fan.

These days, work setups are now more likely to be shared by designers and coders. It’s more of a geeky tech thing. These setups provide a production record, a technical snapshot of a particular moment. They have a diary-like utility to them, a personal record, a document, a history.

Writing setups remind us of what writers used to do. And what our peers are doing now. They inspire and motivate us. They are part of publishing myth-making and legend. Every creative endeavour has its tips and tricks, and its sacred objects: a special brand of Japanese pencil, a German Leica 35mm film camera loaded with Kodak Tri-X Pan, or an Italian notebook.

It’s possible to take writing setups even further. To make them part of the business. For a while, photographers have acted as ‘product ambassadors’ endorsing particular cameras, monetising the behind-the-scenes insight and turning it into a marketing tool.

Some writers have combined the behind-the-scenes insight with their personal brand by moving into merchandising, selling t-shirts through an online store or by using affiliate links to the things that they own.

It’s one thing to be interested in Lee Child’s writing setup, but it’s another level of curiosity and fandom to want to buy Lee Child’s officially approved coffee. Where there’s publishing success or the aura of cult literary status there’s always a hunger for authentic details about a writer.

For readers who write, this informs an interest in learning about trade craft and tools, for others it’s the perceived celebrity status of the writer, meeting them at talks and personal book signing appearances, or reliving the experience of a fictional character through the purchase of merchandise, t-shirts, and drinking ‘Jack Reacher’s coffee’.

Whether its fandom, technical curiosity, or the allure of literary stardom, writing setups and behind-the-scenes insights are banal records, and yet they present us with highly satisfying, tangible, historical ephemera and artefacts that infer an authentic connection, however tantalising but ultimately elusive those may turn out to be.

2021–03–15


Editing a novel

I think it’s fair to say that most writers enjoy certain phases of the writing process more than others.

I enjoy the creative planning phase of a novel (which is mostly in my head) and writing the first draft. My least favourite part of the writing process (for a novel) is the editing process. I can write a novel in two months, but the editing process is a different matter.

Some people take ten years to write a draft, chugging out a few hundred words a day, here and there, and then it’s good to go.

Lee Child famously wrote one draft, and that was the final draft. Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels in two months.

We’re not all that lucky.

For the rest of us, I’m guessing, and hoping, that experience means that the first draft will get better and better, and the editing process will become shorter. Genre writers have the advantage. The simpler sentences and language lends itself to a speedier process.

There’s a lot of advice about writing a first draft. The best advice I’ve had about writing a first draft is… just get the thing done. Don’t worry about writing a masterpiece, just get it finished. Everyone has their own way of doing things, their own technique. Another tip that’s worked for me is, don’t go back and continually tweak the writing. Focus on getting it completed.

Of course other people do it differently. Some people start a writing session by editing the last thing they wrote in the previous session.

It’s surprising how little advice there is about the editing process. Most editing advice is about technical style (style guides), academic writing, plain English, copy editing, marketing blurb, and professional business content. There isn’t much about editing fiction.

The stuff that I usually see is based on absolute rules, like NEVER use an adverb (even though you see them being used in bestsellers).

Editing, for me at least, is more about rhythm and clarity. If you’re writing literary fiction, which I’m not, you are refining the allure of the prose, which is a magical thing in itself.

The truth is that very few people tell you how hard the editing process is. It’s hard work. It’s not just a tweak here and there, and a sprinkling of pixie dust. It’s not just about removing repeated words and correcting typos. It’s a total quality control overhaul — replacing crappy first ideas with shiny second, third and fourth ones.


5 critical points about my editing process

2021–03–10


‘Crash’

Crash (1996) is one of those notorious films, along with A Clockwork Orange (1971), which are controversial in nature and have probably gained over-inflated reputations based on their notoriety. The reputation of David Cronenberg’s Crash was cemented early on when Francis Ford Coppola refused to present him with the Special Jury Prize for Crash at the Cannes Film Festival.

Of all Stanley Kubrick’s films A Clockwork Orange ranks as one of my least favourites. Not because it’s shocking or disturbing, which it is, but because it’s a difficult film to enjoy. It feels more like a lecture than entertainment. These deliberately provocative films are designed to unsettle. They have a polemical function.

Videodrome is probably David Cronenberg’s best work. Although it’s disturbing, it makes sense as a story. Existenz, probably his second best film, also makes sense as a story. I’m not sure if the same thing can be said of Crash. It feels like an idea in search of a story.

The body-shock horror is one of Cronenberg’s reoccurring signature themes and Crash is no exception. The film is basically about the main characters’ inability to satisfy their sexual impulses, and the sexual fetishisation of traumatic injury and life-threatening situations.

Crash is one of a string of offbeat 80s and 90s independent-type films, like Fight Club, that present an alternative, non-mainstream view of the world. These films are designed to challenge socially conservative values.

That’s the theory. What’s the film actually like?

Crash is part bad 90s erotic thriller, part horror, and part over-intellectualised Indie movie. It hasn’t aged too well. If it was shocking in 1996, I think a lot of people watching it today might find it vaguely ridiculous. It’s satirical, but I’m not sure what the target is. Western consumer society? Human nature? The largely middle-class audience watching the film?

J G Ballard spoke positively about the film, stating that it had exceeded the vision of his novel. That’s high praise. I haven’t read J G Ballard’s novel, but my guess is that (like High Rise, another of his novels) it’s aged far better than the film.

2021–03–07


Reviews and rating systems

For the second half of 2020 I stopped posting to this website and focused on writing a manuscript. When the manuscript was finished, I went back to writing posts again.

It was nice having a break, but I did miss it. This website is my personal scratchpad. It’s where I formulate and refine my ideas. I use it to remind myself what I should be doing.

One of things I wanted to do was make writing posts a more fun experience. I envisaged shorter length posts, ideally going from having a concept to hitting the publish button in 15 or 20 minutes. I’m a fast writer and that’s not unrealistic for a short post (although I tend to edit posts a couple of times after publication).

In my first post after last year’s hiatus I wrote about experimenting with a ratings system. I can safely say, I’ve done that now.

I wanted to commit myself to putting a ratings value on the books and films I was writing about.

There are different ways of doing it:

I went for the qualitative approach:

That was fine up to a point. The problem is that most of the stuff I write about are things I’m interested in. So, most of the reviews are going to be ‘interesting’. That can get a bit boring.

I’ve gone from wanting the satisfaction of having a ratings system, to using one and realising that it can be a chore. As a result, the ratings system has gone.

Having one was a useful learning experience. I can see why so many literary reviews avoid them. While it makes sense for films perhaps, it doesn’t make much sense for books. Books are remarkably subjective, and long may that continue.

Book reviews are also quite strange in their own way. It was only while using a rating system that I began to appreciate this fact. Book reviewers seldom say what they really think. They never say this book is total bollocks, or pretentious, or it is the best thing I’ve ever read. There just isn’t the space to review books outside of a publications core interest area, so those are screened out or never even get a look in. There’s a fair amount of reputational politics involved as well. Choosing books to review is an editorial decision.

The novels that are reviewed tend to be discussion points, things the reviewer can use to talk around the subject, a novel’s theme or context. Is it similar or different from a writer’s older work? How does it compare to other books? What does it say about society? Does it use an interesting literary technique?

It’s possible to say something interesting about a dull book. An exciting book can make for a dull review.

I think I’m getting to the point, even with my limited number of reviews on this site, where I could write a review of a novel by talking around it without having read it.

This is especially true when writers have multiple books published. Successful writers essentially publish the same book again and again. Readers come back for more of the same. If they liked it the first time around, they’ll want it again. The same thing, but slightly new.

Anyway, adios ratings system. It was good knowing you.

2021–03–06


‘Klara and the Sun’

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is a literary science fiction and fantasy novel about an android, an ‘AF’ or ‘Artificial Friend’, assigned as a companion to a sick child.

Unlike genre science fiction and fantasy, Literary science fiction and fantasy tends to skimp on the world building. Klara and the Sun is no exception. It’s really about the characters and the relationships between them. The story explores class, authority, social etiquette and interpersonal politics.

I’ve always seen literary science fiction as science fiction for people who don’t really like science fiction. It’s an acceptable version of science fiction for literary snobs who think that genre fiction is beneath them.

As with other literary science fiction novels I’ve read, there’s a deliberate haziness about the specifics of the world we’re in. This holds true of Klara and the Sun. It isn’t just because we’re in an android’s relatively simple perception of the world. The science fiction feels closer to fantasy. Like Pinocchio, Klara has been transformed, as if by magic.

I was never completely sold on the idea that Klara could be powered by sunlight. Sunlight is another symbolic, near-magical force. Klara understands the sun in a proto-religious way. She’s a sun-worshiping robot. The story has an allegorical quality, the tone of a fable. This seems to be another trope of the literary science fiction novels I’ve read recently.

Klara’s language and ability to make sense of the world didn’t quite tally for me. It contradicted itself, sophisticated in one moment and incongruously basic in another. There are many examples of this in the novel.

In one instance Klara describes a path from one house to another as an ‘informal path’. Why the word ‘informal’? An English speaker might describe such as path as ‘overgrown’ or ‘wild’ or ‘rarely used’. The use of the word ‘informal’ implies a knowledge of the difference between formal and informal and being able to contextualise the difference. It’s subtle. And yet she lacks that subtlety in other cases. Her linguistic capability feels like a translation incongruity. This makes me wonder if the inspiration for Klara comes from a non-English speaker, perhaps a Japanese speaking person, and this was used as the basis for Klara’s speech and language patterns.

Klara is basically a sophisticated android Tamagotchi, dutifully serving a family much like the butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day. The sun is really important to her and she refers to it as ‘he’. She also has a limited ability to interpret social interactions.

We don’t get to know much about the world we’re in. Wealthy middle-class people in nice country houses, some in ramshackle houses, children with augmented intelligence upgrades, competition for status, a society that produces damaged adults and children, emotional distance, and lazy parenting.

The first person viewpoint is part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘brand’. It’s a point of view that has immediate appeal and impact when starting a novel. The reader literally gets to know the character from the first sentence, through their thoughts.

The downside is that it’s frustrating being stuck inside Klara’s POV, even with her emotion chip, she’s humourless. Sometimes you wish a novel was written in a different viewpoint, and I wished that this one was written in the third person. I felt trapped inside Klara’s world view. I don’t know if it was the intention or not, but it felt claustrophobic. There’s a palpable sense of being stuck inside a slightly annoying and semi-unreliable narrator. This made me question everything (in much the same way that Klara does). It becomes exhausting.

The quality of the writing is remarkably consistent. There are no bad patches, self indulgent flourishes or purple prose moments. I can understand why people might see Ishiguro as a writer’s writer. His craft skills, subtlety, and richly worked themes would be appreciated in any creative writing class.

Having said this, I didn’t feel emotionally involved with the story or with Klara until quite near the end. That late payoff might also be another brand Ishiguro formula.

Klara and the Sun is what one might call ‘serious fiction’. It has big themes and intricate character studies. It has all the hallmarks of award-winning literary fiction.

The novel explores familiar Ishiguro themes: selfless service, the repression of the self, class, the insecurity of the ‘other’ character working within an environment where they lack authority, the observer who doesn’t belong, and the protagonist’s value and relevance based on their perceived ability to serve the needs of others (and their irrelevance when they’re unable to do this).

The setup and inner world of Klara reminded of the clones in Cloud Atlas, the film AI (itself based on Pinocchio), Gattaca, Machines Like Me, and The Windup Girl.

Ian McEwan’s android in Machines Like Me seems more worked out and believable. But, as I’ve mentioned, literary science fiction isn’t really concerned with the functional specifics of genre science fiction. Literary science fiction worlds are symbolic, parables, fables, and allegories. They use science fiction genre tropes to make literary points.

Ishiguro’s skill is that he can write about characters in a nuanced way, one that alludes to a wider resonance, and social significance. It comes alive in its subtext.

Klara and the Sun is definitely brand Ishiguro, its refined simplicity and detached coldness belies a quirky oddness. Where else do you get characters having casual conversations about the philosophical implications of English hedges?

2021–03–05


‘To Olivia’

Due to the subject matter, To Olivia (2021) is a difficult film to watch. It’s handled really well, but it’s still depressing. This isn’t a film to watch at the tail end of a global pandemic if you want cheering up.

Having said that, To Olivia has a decent script, it’s really well acted, and the production values are nice. It’s competent and stays within its scope, never overreaching itself.

The story is about Roald Dahl’s marriage to the Hollywood actress, Patricia Neal, and his relationship with his daughter, Olivia. It’s a difficult story that’s handled with sensitivity.

I was brought up with Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories for children. And then his short stories for adult readers. His short stories were dark and came with a signature twist ending. They don’t write them like that anymore.

There was a disturbing side to Roald Dahl, one that I’ve only recently become aware of. He was incredibly anti-semitic. It wasn’t casual racism, it was a visceral hatred of Jews. It’s difficult to reconcile his incredible stories with his anti-semitism. This makes an already difficult film arrive loaded with an even more troubling subtext, and one that isn’t covered in the film.

2021–03–05


‘The Maze Runner’ trilogy

I thought I’d take a look at the science fiction and fantasy Maze Runner series of young adult novels and films.

The books and films are aimed at the young adult market. The books are an easy and fun read and they contain loads of interesting ideas. They’re tightly plotted with plenty of action. I enjoyed reading them.


The books are:

There are two prequels:


The first three books tell the story of Thomas, who finds himself without any memories, in the middle of terrifying and mysterious maze. He’s there with a group of boys. It’s Lord of the Flies in a maze. I don’t want to give too much of the story away but his journey is a bit like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, not literally obviously, but it goes from one strange mystery to another. The three books boast bio-mechanical monsters, mutant zombies, a boy meets girl story, parental-like baddies who know better than the kids, and post-apocalyptic landscapes.

These multi-part YA stories, often trilogies, have a three act plot structure that’s basically stretched out over the course of three novels. Once you’re hooked on the first novel it’s easy to buy the second and third just to find out what happens to the characters. The second novel tends to take a dip in quality and acts as a bridge to the third.

You can see the pattern in novels like Ready Player One, Ready Player Two, and there’s almost certainly going to be a Ready Player Three, the Chaos Walking series, and The Hunger Games.

The Maze Runner novels were published in 2009, 2010, 2011. I’m not sure if they were written together (and published in a staggered fashion for marketing purposes), or if they were written sequentially year after year. Either way, that’s pretty good going.


The novels get slightly shorter as they go along:

And there are slightly more chapters as the series progresses:

The story is basically:


The Maze Runner series is written in the third person past tense. The storytelling is lean and efficient. It’s easy to be sniffy about young adult fiction but there’s a lot for any writer to learn from these books about plotting and writing action scenes.

I think The Hunger Games is slightly better written. It’s written in the first person, present tense. It’s one of the better examples of what can be done with this combination. Like The Maze Runner it’s an addictive read an excellent example of creating tension by constantly putting the protagonist in peril:

The Maze Runner books are slightly different in tone to the films. The Thomas in the novels feels a little less certain of himself. This is the norm with YA novels and their adaptations. (It will be interesting to see how the two main characters in the new Chaos Walking (2021) film are treated, especially the male character.)

The Maze Runner trilogy was a success, although not on the standout multi-billion dollar scale of the Harry Potter films (few things are).


The Maze Runner (2014)

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018)


Adapting novels into films is a challenge. Novels seem better suited to mixing the protagonist’s inner world with dramatic action. In films it’s either character based with a disappointing story or action packed and featuring cardboard characters.

I think the Maze Runner films hit a successful balance between the characters and the action. The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes are on the stingy side in my view, reflecting the inherent story overlap between the three films, especially the end of the second film and the start of the third. The budget doubled in the second and third films, and that’s reflected in the outstanding CGI.

2021–03–05


‘Relic’

Relic (2020) is an horror Indie movie about entropy. It’s about family bonds, growing old with dementia, all wrapped up in a psychological horror story. It’s not your typical horror story or your typical Indie movie, is a weird crossover between the two, part Kafkaesque literary metaphor in the vein of Enemy (2013), part family study, and part creepy atmospheric horror.

It’s a slickly produced low-budget film with appealing cinematography. The colour science is especially well done, mimicking old family snapshot prints produced by film cameras in days gone by. It has an earthy, muted and muddy colour palette.

Relic is a clever and subtle film. It’s received a high 92% (based on 222 reviews) critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but its leisurely pace and slightly incongruous thematic cocktail didn’t quite work for me.

2021–03–04


What makes a story satisfying or disappointing?

It’s difficult for a writer when an ambitious story (maybe one that aspires to do things differently) leaves readers feeling overwhelmingly disappointed.

Every writer has been here at some point. There’s something in the story that doesn’t work. The story makes a promises it doesn’t deliver. It solves a problem in the writer’s mind that the reader isn’t aware of or care about.

Disappointing stories are miscommunications. Satisfying stories are the result of a carefully balanced process that harmonises the story elements.

Here’s a few ideas, based on my own experience, of how stories can go wrong. I’m sure there are many other reasons why they don’t work that I’ve not included, but these are some of the ones I’ve come across recently.[1]

The reader should care about something

The reader needs to care about something in the story to give them a reason to keep reading. This usually means having a protagonist the reader can empathise with. It can also mean: the quality of the prose, the dramatic dynamic between the characters, the use of intriguing ideas, incorporating an unanswered question or puzzle that needs solving, including plenty of action sequences, or taking place in a fascinating world.

The story should pose a problem

The story should present a problem that needs solving. Something has to be broken that needs fixing. Without it is a challenge to engage the reader.

It doesn’t matter how big or small the problem is, it only has to feel important to the protagonist and to the reader.

The protagonist should solve the problem

It’s satisfying when the protagonist solves the problem that’s been presented by the story. Finding out how the protagonist solves the problem is part of the reason for completing the story. It’s disappointing when someone else comes in and solves the problem for the protagonist, when the problem isn’t really a problem, or when the problem goes away on it’s own accord. It’s especially satisfying when the protagonist solves the story problem in an inventive and audacious way.

The audience should respect the protagonist

The reader has to believe in and hopefully admire the protagonist. If that isn’t possible they should respect his or her journey (or find him or her terrifying or comical). If the protagonist doesn’t solve the story problem the reader is less likely to respect the character.

The protagonist should learn something new

The protagonist should learn something new and important. Through the protagonist, the reader also learns something. The protagonist discovers something new about the world or about him/herself.

If the protagonist doesn’t learn something new, the reader should learn something important about the protagonist’s inability to learn. A story that fails to provide a learning experience (either lofty or banal) for the protagonist or reader, feels pointless.

The story should feel important

The audience is giving up their valuable time for the story. The story has to be important enough for them to give that time. All stories should be important, even ones that aren’t. They should be doing something that seems important to validate their existence.

The story should fall within audience expectation

Readers know what they want. And they know what they don’t like. Even if they know nothing about storytelling technique, they know exactly what they’re looking for in a story. They come to the story loaded with preconceptions and expectations.

If readers expect something, give it to them. If the writer doesn’t give them what they want, give them something beyond their expectations. But maybe don’t trick them or force feed them into an experience they aren’t looking for.

The story should feel new

Readers like to be pleasantly surprised. They like stories that feel fresh and new, even if they aren’t. Even if a reader wants the same old story again and again, it has to seem slightly new and different each time.

The story should make sense

It’s annoying when stories don’t make sense. Confusing stories are likely to take the reader out of the story and lead to disappointment. I think that literary fiction readers are more tolerant than genre readers.


[1] Of course, should doesn’t mean must. But it’s probably going to be a lot easier if you want to write a satisfying story.

2021–03–01


‘Oblivion’

This post contains plot spoilers.


Oblivion (2013) is a science fiction film directed by Joseph Kosinski. The film exhibits impressive world building, stunning visuals, and action sequences.

I’d say that Oblivion is an enjoyable film to watch but the story is unsatisfying. I’m not alone with this view. Oblivion has a satisfaction rating of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes. On Rotten Tomatoes 50% isn’t good. 25% is an outright disaster. And anything over 75% is decent.

So the question is, why did Oblivion, which was a successful film, get such a low score? The professional reviews also picked it up on its script issues.

Kosinski focuses on cool visuals but stints on a compelling plot. It’s a dazzler, but the story lacks the impact of the futuristic look. — Claudia Puig, USA Today

In space, Jack [Harper] hopes, someone may hear you dream. But in a movie theatre, no one will see you yawn. — Richard Corliss, TIME

Glossy, derivative, ambitious and fatally underpowered. — Tom Charity, CNN

Mystery posed by Oblivion as a whole is why its mysteries are posed so clumsily, and worked out so murkily. — Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

The filmmakers don’t even have the courage to see the story to its proper end, opting for a ridiculous finale that feels vaguely insulting. — Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

All the eye candy in the world can’t mask the sensation that you’ve seen this all before…and done better. Too bad the movie’s script wasn’t given the same attention as its sleek, brave-new-world look. — Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly

To be fair to Oblivion, it’s an action-thriller which isn’t designed to be picked apart and analysed. During a normal viewing there shouldn’t be enough time to notice or reflect on these things. The problem with Oblivion is that they are apparent when watching the film. There are so many things that don’t make sense.

Why is this? The answer is simple. The story has prioritised plot twists over everything else. As an action-thriller the issue is exacerbated because the plot twits don’t really have the impact that they deserve.

In Moon, for example, the plot twist is successful because there’s time to make it emotionally resonant. Action-thrillers don’t have that luxury. In the 124 minutes of Oblivion the film has to work hard to scene set through the exposition:

And all of this setup that we invest our time and emotions in are going to be revealed as a lie. By the time the plot twists hit the story we’ve invested in Tech 49’s day-today word and his relationship with his attentive and dutiful companion Vika who has to be jettisoned when his real wife turns up.

During the setup the audience gets to know Vika. By the time Julia Rusakova Harper, the main love interest, appears the film is already switching into action-thriller mode. Even though Julia is the more important character we never really get to know her in the same way. As a result, Julia feels like a less rounded, more one-dimensional, action-based character while Vika, who is a secondary character, has greater depth because we’ve spent more character-based screen time with her. The possibility of achieving a more satisfying story has been sacrificed to enable the plot twist.

What if Vika was untrustworthy from the start? The challenge of scripts with a limited number of characters is that the characters have to perform double duties. In Hollywood scripts a trusted character often turns into a traitor while an untrusted character becomes a friend. That’s what is happening with Vika and Julia, even if the script doesn’t have time to explore the nuances of the shift. Jack Harper has to transfer his allegiance from Vika to Julia. Even though it’s a difficult dilemma, it’s resolved in a few lines of dialogue and Vika’s death at the hands of a drone. Her death performs multiple functions. It gets her out of the story so that Jack Harper can fully align himself with Julia and it confirms his suspicions that Sally is a malicious force.

The problem is that the plot twists need so much work that they hinder the rest of the story. They literally wreck havoc on it, leaving a confusing and nonsensical plot. And the payoff isn’t really worth it because (unlike Moon) the film doesn’t have time to explore the emotional implications.

Part of the world building is also about maintaining the plot reveals. Why does Tech 49 live in a glamorous Sky Tower in a devastated world run by an alien AI? The answer is that the Sky Tower needs to be sufficiently humanistic to avert any suspicion that Tech 49s world has been entirely created by an alien AI. It also performs double duty by highlighting the cost of his abandoning his luxury lifestyle to save humanity.

Why does Sally (the name of a NASA worker that the alien entity uses to communicate with the clones) allow Jack Harper into the Tet? The Tet is the massive alien structure orbiting Earth. The destruction of the Tet is itself a homage to climatic scene in Independence Day. The alien AI has travelled across space, possesses unimaginable technologies, obliterated the Earth and cloned humans to harness them for its work. Why would it be so stupid to let Jack into its vulnerable inner core?

The ending is confusing. The Solaris-like ramshackle cottage in a hidden gorge with a jarring voice-over from Julia that wants to be tragically profound while also serving as upbeat celebration to send the audience away with a happy ending.

If there’s one thing an audience wants after being entertained, it’s for the story to make sense. Confusing stories tend to disappoint viewers. And that’s where Oblivion falls down. It has a complicated (but all-too-convenient plot) that doesn’t satisfy its own questions. It’s a story that’s held back by the need to maintain the secrecy of its plot reveals. Balancing an action-thriller with impressive visuals is tricky enough without bringing in big, existential ideas that the film doesn’t have time to explore.

2021–03–01


Science fiction world building

This post is about my experience researching a science fiction world building project. It’s the summary of my learnings, while also being vague about the results.

There’s no two ways around it. World building is a challenge. There’s the risk of being over-ambitious and providing too much detail. The world building can slow down the pace and get in the way of the dramatic action.

If the world building is completely ignored, just lazy or under-ambitious it can result in a story that lacks a convincing, interesting and immersive environment. Not having a unique and realistic environment makes a story feel generic and inauthentic.

World building is a balance between describing the world while also giving the characters enough space to live out the drama within it. With science fiction genre stories, the writer owes the reader something to get their teeth into with the world building. It’s an intrinsic part of the genre and it’s what science fiction genre readers expect.

What is ‘world building’?

Stories naturally incorporate world building in one form or another. Because science fiction is an ideas based genre it usually involves quite specific world building. There the way the world looks as well as how the world works. Quite simple differences between worlds can have a dramatic effect on how a world looks and feels and operates. A world powered by coal will be very different from a world powered by advanced fusion energy reactors.

It’s important to understand how the world works in order to produce a convincing story.

World building in science fiction not just about stuff, and things. The stuff is there to impact on the characters. Technology doesn’t mean anything without the characters to give it context. The world building is part of who the characters are in the story. It informs what they are fighting for and fighting against.

Starting out

I found it really useful to know the general direction I wanted to go in and also what I wanted to avoid. I started off with simple images in my head, and then I developed those pictures into a rationalised framework. It was useful to keep an open mind, to give space for the ideas to develop. Some of them grew and I was able to refine them. Other ideas led to a dead end I had to jettison them because they didn’t fit into the rest of the world building.

It’s important to look beyond the cliché. Readers want new ideas or at least old ideas dressed up in a different and compellingly fresh way. I’m a fan of Blade Runner but I wanted to avoid the look and feel of the film. The cityscape is too dense for what I had in mind for my story so it wouldn’t have been appropriate anyway. Even if it was right, I would probably have done my best to avoid it. As much as I admire Ridley Scott’s work, I didn’t want to write a Ridley Scott fan tribute. While staying clear of cliché it’s also important to stay within genre expectations.

The future is the past reimagined

Most visions of the future or alternative realities in science fiction are thinly disguised and reimagined versions of the past. George Orwell had the 1930s in mind when he wrote 1984. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (even if it’s a fantasy story and not technically set in the future) harks back to a pre-industrial England. The Handmaid’s Tale references the historical precedent of the New England witch trials and Puritanism in the 17th Century. Writers use the future in science fiction as a wrapper to reinvent the past. Science fiction is the past, set in the future, dealing with today’s issues.

Science fiction worlds are versions of Heaven and Hell

I’d argue that the science fiction and fantasy genres originate from religion and religious texts. The earliest examples of science fiction and fantasy date back to religious texts where characters travel with angels through space and time. These theological inspired thought-experiments were devices designed to explore faith, Christian values, and spirituality.

Science fiction and fantasy offers a secular version of religious texts about morality, society, the afterlife, heaven and hell, damnation and paradise. A secular mindset might argue that religion invented science fiction and fantasy before science fiction and fantasy existed. Jesus is the ultimate superhuman character. Science fiction worlds are secular extensions of religious worlds. They acknowledge change and transformation of culture, society and technology in a human-centric post-Christian story.

So, why all this detail in a simple post about world building? Because it helps to know what function the world building serves before diving into it.

To simplify the religious origins of Science fiction even further, it’s a retelling of the conflict between heaven and hell. Or its about characters living in a form of hell. It’s rarely entirely about heaven because that’s usually a less compelling dramatic story.

In science fiction the contrast between heaven and hell is developed into something more sophisticated and nuanced than a choice between one and the other. Nuance in storytelling allows room for grey areas where characters can change, and loyalties can be tested. Cultures in science fiction are often set up with a plot twist. They appear to offer a version of heaven while possessing aspects of hell. The culture we identify with (which is usually human) has troubling failings. An apparently evil society also displays positive traits or a valid reason for acting that way.

In what’s perhaps a cliché now, the heavenly culture faces off against the hellish culture. In the heavenly culture the people are enlightened and everything is shiny and works. The hellish culture is dysfunctional or violently barbaric. It may be a physically dirty place where things don’t work. The heavenly world is light and bright and the hellish world is grimy and dark. This simplistic setup is often subverted to make the primitive culture tolerant and humanistic while the advanced culture is revealed to be repressive and cruel. In the ‘post-religious’ science fiction genre paradise tend to have a catch.

What kind of world am I building?

With science fiction offering secular snippets of heaven and hell, the question any writer faces is where to locate their story on a line between paradise and damnation?

Do people press buttons and food magically appears on a plastic tray, or do they have to kill and eat one another to get some lunch?

The classic Star Trek series conforms to the clean and clinical version of the future where the shiny white spaceship, The Enterprise, is commanded by an enlightened leader who’s fighting for an egalitarian and rational world view. There’s something almost quasi-religious about their mission. It’s literally an environment where people don’t wear creased clothes. Star Trek represents a vision of high civilisation (it reflects how America saw itself in the 1960s).

In the tale of two cities heaven battles against hell. The Enterprise would be fighting against violent and self-interested alien species lacking any morality.

In the hellish nightmare world, Captain Kirk would be sexually harassing members of his crew, running an illegal drug smuggling ring, and planning to take control of the Federation for his own selfish purposes. The hero would be a person low down in the pecking order, coping with the hellish world they’re in, fighting for survival, trying to escape, maybe even trying to change it.

The hellish world is personified by films like Alien. Instead of speeding through space in the shiny Enterprise, the Nostromo resembles a rusty cargo freighter. The mission is behind schedule and the crew are liable to have their pay docked, next thing they know there’s a demonic creature onboard and they’re facing a short future.

Is there a connection between cultural optimism and the kind of world that the readers are attracted to? In less optimistic times, like economic downturns audiences, audiences are supposed to prefer optimistic stories. The history of the musical is a classic example of this. Audiences want to be distracted from their fears. But it’s also true that audiences want to explore their fears, which is what the horror genre is all about. People go to stories to find escapism, to explore their fears, to find solace and hope.

Science fiction and fantasy stories like Star Wars make great vehicles for achieving these goals.

One question I ask myself is, does my world building environment offer a place for the reader to:

What is society like in this world?

Stories need problems that require solutions. Injustice must be fought. Tyranny reversed. Truth and love must flourish. A story without problems is in trouble.

Hollywood films take this to an extreme. The villains are intent on taking over the world. The planet faces an existential threat from alien invasions and mutant super-humans.

I’m mostly optimistic but when it comes to researching the world building, I mangled to reach deep down into my inner pessimist. I managed to surprise myself. At the same time, I was conscious that I’m turned-off by relentlessly pessimistic stories. In a crazy world, I need stories to give me hope and faith in humanity.

Will my science fiction world be democratic or authoritarian? Will it be a Theocracy or a police state? How will a contemporary audience relate to the values expressed in that world?

In the film ‘Logan’s Run’, 1976, people live decadent lifestyles until they get to 30. Then they are killed in a quasi-religious state-organised spectator ritual.

My research took me to Apartheid era South Africa, the state of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the decline of the Chinese Empire, post-Roman Empire England, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, just to name a few.

One of the few constants about the futurology of science fiction world building is the unknown. The future will be surprising in surprising ways. It won’t turn out how we expect.

There will be cultural norms in the future that we consider abhorrent. To people in the future our culture will look primitive or decadent. We come from a post-World War Two order that assumes enlightened social progress, or at least increasing prosperity. These assumptions are underpinned by fading models of economic wealth and political stability.

Philip K Dick nailed the weirdness of the future in his science fiction. He achieved this by putting in a load of bonkers ideas into his novels.

What about the culture itself? Culture changes but human needs remain the same. People will still be people in the future. Hopefully. They will still have the same flaws and weaknesses, craving for social status, ambition, impulses and desires. Good and bad.

Len Deighton created wonderful spy worlds in his novels. Legend has it that Len Deighton chose the world of spies and spying because it allowed him to completely invent the world for himself. He didn’t know anything about police procedure, which stopped him from writing a detective crime novel. He based his spy world on what he knew — the business workplace, the office, and office politics. Part of what makes Len Deighton’s novels so impressively realistic is that they’re based on an real-life workplace that’s been cleverly wrapped in a spy genre story.

Here are some of the issues that people are concerned about today (not in any order):

As someone researching a science fiction genre story and not writing literary fiction, I had to consider the implications of dealing with, or not dealing with, those subjects. Going back to science fiction being about the past, set in the future (or an alternative reality) and dealing with today’s issues, I had to include them. The simplest way of achieving this is to make some or all of them the story. To explore these issues in ways that give readers pause for thought, and hope.

The Expanse ignores the subject of racism by taking place in a post-racial identity world. Racial and ethnic identity have been supplanted by location-based identities: Earther, Belter, and Martian.

Whatever the issues and values I explore in my fictional world, the protagonist must share similar values, hopes and fears to the reader. They must face dilemmas the reader can identify with.

What does the world look like?

One of the facts about any moment in time, the past, or the future, is that any world with people has to have human ergonomics. It has to support children, education, social lives, the need to exercise, and day-to-day factors like that.

I spent a lot of time thinking how my future world would look, especially the towns, and the buildings. What clothing would the characters wear? What would the interior spaces where they live look like? What do they eat and drink? What do they do to relax and forget about work? Are they like us or are they different?

The 2013 film Oblivion went for an impressively slick and classy Modernist look, which is appealing, but that clinical perfection was an aesthetic that I wanted to avoid.

I went back to the idea of the future as a reinvention of the past. I researched Brutalist architecture, concrete structures, East German apartment blocks, Soviet monuments. I explored military fortifications (British military observation towers in Northern Ireland, forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan) and defence structures from the Cold War era.

I spent time researching environmental damage, background pollution, predictions about ‘global warming’, and data about rising sea levels.

I went as far as creating a map of my future world. The map helped me to visualise and understand the world that I was creating. It reminded me of the map on the inside cover of Lord of the Rings, which I enjoyed studying when I was a child. I had to understand the world that I was creating, so the reader could also visualise it.

It was important that the world I was building felt like a real environment. It was a place where people could live out their otherwise ordinary lives.

Weapons, vehicles and aircraft

I was researching for a science fiction action-thriller. Without going into too much detail, the protagonist and the main characters are operating in a violent and dangerous world.

What weapons do they use to defend themselves? Ray guns or sticks and stones? I knew they weren’t going to be armed with either of those, so I had to research the subject to make sure I could describe the weapons. I wanted to make the details realistic, and I didn’t want to make any glaring technical errors.

The post-apocalyptic 2013 film ‘Oblivion’ went for a metallic grey motorbike-type outfit, and a real assault rifle housed in a futuristic shell.

Future assault rifles in science fiction films tend to look ridiculous. They’re huge and bulky. For inspiration, I researched real weapons systems from the 1960s. There are some weird Soviet experimental weapons like the bullpup TKB-011 and the TKB-022PM. They look strangely organic with their brown Bakelite furniture and remind me of something from Planet of the Apes.

The Heckler & Koch G11 is another futuristic assault rifle, the so-called ‘Kraut Space Gun’. The research helped me to realise that in the future, whatever the technology, people will have to operate these weapons, so they need to be ergonomically practical. And that’s why most of those experimental systems failed. They didn’t offer significant improvements and their ergonomics were terrible.

As my story was set in the future, I had to make judgements about future technology. My way of dealing with some of this was simple. If I wasn’t sure, I simply fudged or avoided the issue. The classic science fiction way of handling this might also be to invent impressive sounding sci-fi lingo and use a bunch of made-up terms.

My characters use weapons described as ‘assault rifles’ and they load those weapons with ‘magazines’. I didn’t go into too much detail beyond that.

The research into the world building process paid off. Even when I didn’t get the exact answer I was looking for, the research helped me to make decisions and come to conclusions that might not otherwise have reached.

While it’s not necessary to have an exact picture of the technology or how it works, it’s important to know what level of explanation I was prepared to share with the reader.

The Armoured Personnel Carrier in the film ‘Aliens’ looks amazing but with three centimetres of ground clearance, it would be useless across rough terrain, and the weapons turret has a limited field of view. Films are about instant impressions. The audience doesn’t have time to notice or reflect on these sorts of impracticalities.

The vehicles in my manuscript were electric. That’s not exactly a wild bet. I did make sure that the characters didn’t refer to them as ‘electric’ because people in the future would no longer make distinctions between electric and petrol engines.

I went down a similar route with my descriptions of aircraft. I used mostly generic terms, adding some specific description where necessary. My research helped me to navigate how they’d function and what they looked like. I researched the interior of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey and used that as a starting point. It’s incredible, these things are full of exposed wiring. I spent time worrying if the vertical lift aircraft should be electric, gas / petrol powered, or use some other power source. I tried to work out if they had jet engines or rotor blades. In the end I just referred their propulsion systems as ‘engines’.

It’s important to know how readers will relate to the technology. Will it be highly advanced and near magical or will they be able to relate to it in much the same way as today’s technology, like driving a car?

The aircraft in the ‘Maze Runner’ film series, hedge their bets with jet engines and rotary blades.

My research produced some odd discoveries (that’s part of the research process). There are already science fiction-like weapons in existence today, energy weapons and lasers. They tend to be the size of a house or a truck and require a group of research scientists to operate them, but some of the technology is already here.

There really are directed energy weapons in use. DEWs, and yes, they even have their own acronym. They blast out microwaves and if they were powerful enough, they would ‘cook’ people in much the same way as a consumer microwave machine. Nice, huh? The ones around today don’t have the power to ‘cook’ a person. They are non-lethal and designed for crowd control. The effects of non-lethal electromagnetic weapons include: nausea, breathing difficulties, disorientation, the sensation of skin burning, pain and vertigo.

Discovery through serendipity is a major plus of the research process. Through my research, I developed new ideas and refined existing ones.

Drone technology was another area that I researched. Drones have been around since the Second World War. The US Air Force tested out drone bombers in WW2 but the technology wasn’t ready. Drone technology is now at the same point in its development as the tank was in 1918. Like it or not, AI is coming to drone warfare along with Cold War Soviet military doctrine of ‘anti-access, area denial’.

Drones have been around for some time in science fiction storytelling. The Imperial Probe Droid from the beginning of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is a good example with its wonderfully skeuomorphic floating jellyfish-like form.

Bringing it all together

The research process helped me to write a story that takes place in a convincing world. It gave me time to think about the world I was building.

It’s a great way to generate and refine ideas for a story. But the research process is a means and not an end. A novel is nothing without vivid characters to inhabit that world, and a dramatic story to get the best, and worst, out of them.

2021–02–20


What is the story problem?

In The Graduate[1] Ben Braddock comes from an affluent middle-class family. He has just graduated and has a promising life ahead of him, in ‘plastics’ even, if he wants it. He’s doted on by his parents, driving around in a flashy European sports car. He doesn’t really have any problems. So, what’s the real story problem?

Ben Braddock’s problem isn’t that he’s single, lazy or lacks direction. It’s not that he has an affair with jaded married woman (who is also a family friend). Through her he learns about himself and the world. The problem isn’t that his girlfriend decides to marry someone else (a man who is more socially acceptable to her parents). His real problem, which is the problem posed by the story, is that he doesn’t have the guts to live his own life.

To solve the problem he has to change. He must take command of his life and throw himself open to risk — ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. The penalty of failure is living a life of dissatisfied mediocrity, the conventional life espoused by his parents. His parents generation represent the suffocating values of the 1950s. Ben Braddock is a modern 1960s man.

Ben Braddock’s real problem doesn’t exist in the outside world. He’s facing an internal challenge. The real problem posed by the story can only be solved within himself. This is the nature of real story problems. The protagonist acquires wisdom through experience and they act on that experience to change their life.


[1] Here’s another of my posts, which takes a look at The Graduate — ‘The Graduate’: who is the monster?

2021–02–19


Maybe, don’t annoy the reader

The story problem isn’t a real problem

This can happen in different ways:

The protagonist has to face a frightening problem. The story either celebrates their success, or their failure provides a warning. The problem can be large or small, but in the mind of the protagonist and the reader it has to feel vital, a monumental challenge. Winning that first kiss (avoiding being viewed as a loser, because all the other kids have had theirs). Winning a race (or facing humiliation from an enemy and financial ruin).

Stories can be disappointing because they trick the reader into believing that the stakes are higher than they really are:

Occasionally, stories come along that creatively reinvent these scenarios because they introduce an interesting payoff.

The story fails to deliver on its promise

This is when the setup of a story indicates what kind of story it is but the narrative breaks with that expectation. This can disappoint the reader.

It is possible to break with expectation and make something wonderful and surprising, but it’s a lot more likely to disappoint the reader. Failing to deliver on the promise produces an unsatisfying story.

The characters are a turn-off

It’s easy to create realistic and sophisticated characters who are:

Readers and audiences want to root for a character, especially a fascinating one who they respect. A character earns the reader’s respect by their ability to creatively solve problems, and by being resilient and proactive.

It’s possible to create exciting drama with selfish and malicious characters. The characters may be hard to empathise with individually but the dramatic experience remains addictive. That’s tricky to pull off. It’s more likely that the reader will be taken out of there story because they don’t have anyone to root for.

Readers identify with characters whose predicament or values they identify with. When a reader is emotionally invested with a character they are emotionally invested in the story. The easiest way to make a character likeable is to given them genuine humanity, make them less selfish, and to inflict injustice on them. Likeable characters tend to learn and adapt. They solve the real problem posed by the story.

2021–02–18


Notes about the editing process

I wrote about the editing process in a recent post. I’ve been thinking about it from a slightly different perspective. This post is a series of thoughts captured in simple bullet point form. There’s no particular order:

2021–02–18


‘Hearts in Atlantis’

Sometimes you catch a film at 3.00pm or 3.00am on TV. These days it’s more likely to be a streaming service. It’s a film you’ve never seen before. You watch it expecting nothing and you come way from it pleasantly surprised.

Hearts in Atlantis (2001) is one of those films. It’s quite a serious story about adolescence and memory. While some memories fade, others memories persist and linger. The past lives on but it’s a place that you can never go back to.

The film is about change, loss — the end of ‘Bobby’ / Robert Garfield’s childhood and his innocence. The theme of memory and looking back with hindsight is mirrored with Ted Brautigan’s psychic abilities (his second sight adding a little magic to the story). It is also about a young adult without a father figure and the arrival of a mysterious outsider (Ted Brautigan) who seems a little creepy at first but turns into a mentor figure.

Anthony Hopkins is great in his role as the doomed Ted Brautigan and the story is satisfying. It’s a very slick screenplay encapsulating nostalgia and the ravages of time (loosely based on a short story by Steven King). It does get a little schmaltzy from time to time with that childhood summer, soda pop Americana vibe (was that a particularly late 90s / turn of the century thing, maybe?). Tonally it’s The Wonder Years or Stand By Me with a smidgen of the X-Files.

As you might expect there’s a fair amount of the adult ‘Bobby’ / Robert Garfield making sense of his experience through a voiceover narration. This is obligatory for these stories, as is the personification of time being expressed by revisiting a childhood home that’s since fallen into disrepair and is now abandoned. Hearts in Atlantis is well acted and attractively shot. It was an enjoyable 101 minutes, even if there were no surprises.

2021–02–17


‘Maxwell’s Demon’

Having recently finished The Raw Shark Texts, I literally put that down and picked up Maxwell’s Demon.

First off, I do like attractively designed and typographically set out books that have been packaged with care and attention to detail. Just handling the hardback of Maxwell’s Demon makes for a pleasant experience. Not to get sidetracked here but it does add to overall impact. It’s just one part of the magic that publishers use to transform a manuscript into a published book.

I think, with both the The Raw Shark Texts and Maxwell’s Demon, the conversational talking point of the graphical embellishments are fun but they can detract from the prose, which I enjoyed as a thing in itself. The writing is really accessible for literary fiction, even if Steven Halls work is masquerading behind the label crime fiction (metaphysical crime fiction even), this is a literary fiction novel that’s written with a stylistic simplicity approaching genre fiction, while comfortably retaining its literary fiction badge. That’s no mean feat to pull off. The writing has a certain Raymond Carver-like minimalism about it, which I found very seductive. Indeed, that was what attracted me to The Raw Shark Texts in the first place, the simplicity of its first two sentences (they are both three word sentences (with a contraction in the second).

Steven Hall’s two novels definitely seem to have a Wittgensteinian quality about them. They play with the conceptual nature of existence through his own philosophical investigations (with the ambiguity and doubt of Wittegenstein’s later texts like Zettel and Culture and Value, Zettel being a personal favourite of mine).

I found the novel’s playful sense of humour entertaining. I think a lot of reviews seemed to miss the comedy factor in Steven Hall’s writing. It uses philosophy and scientific constructs to create a — for want of a better term — surreal landscape. Sometimes novels with loads of references can become ‘Google dumping’ but there’s enough quirkiness and a passion for conceptualisation that makes this novel work.

The worlds of his novels are playful and full of strange ideas that cross boundaries between the real and the ideal. This world building reminds me in a way of Douglas Adams. What Douglas Adams did with science fiction, Steven Hall is doing with literary fiction. This absurdly bonkers remix-glitch universe also reminds me of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. Steven Hall, Douglas Adams and Jasper Fforde are completely different kinds of writers but they all build humorously intellectual worlds with their own particular character, tone and terms of reference.

Maxwell’s Demon is like a walk through scenery, where the scenery is the story. It is a landscape of ideas.

To simplify things, there are three types of literary fiction and the novel falls into the last group:

Why am I saying this? Because, if you read the novel expecting it to fall within the third category you will probably come away from it feeling satisfied. If you are expecting a conventional novel or genre story, you might well be disappointed.

If you ‘just go with it’, it’s an enjoyable metaphysical journey, a work of conceptual art with it’s tongue firmly in its imaginary cheek. No more so is this evident than in its ending, which uses a graphical element.

2021–02–16


‘News of The World’

News of The World (2020) is the story of a travelling news reader, shortly after the American Civil War, as he takes a long and dangerous journey to return a 10 year old girl to her family.

The ‘Western’ genre has gone from being an all pervasive TV and cinema genre into a niche historical fiction sub-genre. To exacerbate this decline, nothing really new has happened to the genre since the Spaghetti Western and the Revisionist Westerns of the 1960s Counter Culture. Films like Unforgiven (1993) have been acclaimed but not really taken the genre back to its former glory. (I included the Western in a recent post, Three American Stories).)

The Western is a problematic genre. It’s stuffed with cliché, considered old fashioned by many, and riddled with sexist and racist assumptions and stereotypes. For a long time, sanitised versions of the Western, along with sitcoms, were the comfort food of American TV. Today, in a world where the Hollywood blockbuster is dominated by the superhero (which itself goes back to the 1920s and 30s), the Western feels like the genre that’s had its time. It’s a story from the 19th Century that was mythologised in live action shows and pulp fiction the late 19th Century, and film and TV in the 20th Century.

In spite of this, there’s been a steady trickle of new films about the ‘Old American West’ (to give it its proper title). Some of the more recent examples of the genre include Seraphim Falls (2006), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), True Grit (2010), Django Unchained (2012), The Revenant (2015), and Bone Tomahawk (2015). The Western, with its vast landscapes, offers a great environment for the battle between good and evil to take place and for the individual to survive within the wilderness. It can still bring an elemental rawness to a story. It’s also a versatile genre because it can be used to cover big themes, revenge, love, power, political corruption, survival against the elements, and the fight for justice.

News of The World explores a dangerous and divided world. It’s a world that we might recognise in some of the news today — social division, rampant capitalism, and ordinary people struggling to eek an existence. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd begins as a reluctant hero. Through his journey, taking care of a ten year old girl, he comes to terms with his own loss and rediscovers his moral centre. It’s a story about coping with loss and trauma and reconnecting with individual humanity.

Greyhound, another film with Tom Hanks in the leading role, was also released in 2020. Like News of The World it is a work of historical fiction (a war film), this time taking place in the Second World War when an Atlantic convoy fights for survival against a pack of U-Boats. Even though Tom Hank’s character was at the centre of the story, it felt like the computer generated sea was its main character. In News of The World, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is at the epicentre of News of The World, with Johanna Leonberger / Cicada (the ten year old girl) a close second. I’ll take the landscapes of the Western over the rainy, stormy seascapes of the Atlantic any day. Overall, News of The World feels like a more balanced story.

The Captain in Greyhound isn’t sure if he has what it takes, and by the same account it’s difficult for the audience to fully believe in him. In News of The World Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a character that we can put our faith in, which feels a lot more satisfying.

Does News of The World do anything new or add to the Western in any remarkable way? Not really, but it’s a watchable and immersive cinematic experience. It’s a film about stories and storytelling. The main character turns the news into relatable stories for his audiences, in much the same filmmakers do.

News of The World is about the carnage of an American reality at a particular moment in history (drawing comparisons with today’s divided America). Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is the hero navigating through this land, responsibly sharing the news (in contrast to the hate-mongering and partisan smallness of today’s social media). His work provides a glimmer of hope for downtrodden citizens. Through his resilience he finds new meaning and his own sense of belonging.

2021–02–14


The editing process

Everyone who writes has their favourite and least favourite part of writing a novel. Things that writers often pick out are writing the dialogue and doing the action scenes. My least favourite part of writing a novel is the editing process.

The first draft always has a certain excitement for me. I do a basic bullet-point outline, so although I know what’s going to happen I don’t necessarily know how it’s going to happen. That keeps it interesting.

Because I know what’s happened and how it’s happened, the editing stage never feels as exciting as the first draft. It’s less intuitive and it requires more concentration.

When Lee Child was writing the Jack Reacher novels, he wrote one draft and that was it. He did go back to review what he’d written during the day, but he didn’t go back later on for a separate editing process.

I tried the Lee Child approach when I wrote the manuscript last year, but failed. While it’s the least edited manuscript I’ve written, I have worked on it extensively. A significant chunk of my attention went into the first three chapters. That was where I honed the tone and voice of the novel. I gave those three chapters the level of attention that I gave my short stories for my MA in Creative Writing.

The first draft is more like a stream of consciousness process. The editing process is self-conscious and logical, self-knowing and self-aware. It’s a rationalisation process.

The first draft comes out like a mental sneeze. The editing process, on the other hand, seems to have so many conscious choices and decisions. Every sentence is an aesthetic conundrum. In the end it’s all about achieving a viable balance.

I think I’m getting better at the editing phase, but it’s a gradual improvement.

What am I doing in the editing phase? I’m giving the images in my head a more logical description as I tweak the words. I’m explaining things with greater clarity. I’m turning it into a smoother reading experience. I’m simplifying it but, at the same time, I’m making it richer, and more insightful.

The editing process is like turning a lump of rock into a diamond. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway. I’m writing genre fiction so it’s more about refining the reading experience and making the story as addictive and immersive as possible rather than elevating the language.

Either way, editing is a slow and painful process. Its slowness, for me at least, can obscure the satisfaction of seeing immediate results. You just have to keep plugging away.

Yes, it’s rewarding. It feels good improving your prose and rectifying mistakes, but it’s like work. Hard work. It feels like work, because it is work.

2021–02–13


Photography magazines: advertising in the 1970s

One of the strange things about popular magazines and printed journals is, as they age the content becomes less and less important and the context of the advertising become more interesting.[1]

Photography magazines make a lot of about sharing professional photographic skills and techniques, but they’re really there to review and sell new camera gear to ‘enthusiasts’, even if most of it is used to take family snaps. While they have changed over the years, back in the 1970s they presented women in a patronising way that was part of the male dominated culture of the era. Glamour photography was a popular interest and it often featured in portfolios, galleries, and as a test subject for new camera equipment.

So, the sexist adverts in 1970s photography magazines come from a time when ‘glamour’ images of naked or scantily clad women were considered art or artistic. In the 1970s models wearing bikinis, perched on car bonnets at car shows, the Miss World competition, were part of the mainstream culture.

For us now, these images would be seen as outdated, politically incorrect, and comically inappropriate. Nonetheless, the cultural shift is interesting considering how much has (and has not changed in 50 years).[2]

Most of the advertising is promoting the convenience of new technology to consumers, or products and services aimed at the trade.

The history of consumer photography has been one of offering greater convenience. When photography started you needed to be an amateur scientist. The Kodak Brownie offered almost magical convenience. It’s a great example of radical simplicity providing an excellent user experience.

You press the button, we do the rest.

The Olympus Trip (1967 – 1984) took convenience even further. And, in the 21 Century, the iPhone almost guarantees a sharp, properly exposed image, and 4K video from your phone.

The Kodak advert (a company which no longer exists in its original form) in the journal of the Royal Photographic Society is sexist and yet knowingly sexist in the way that it acknowledges its sexism.

What our paper ads need is a sexy dolly [3]

The sales rep looks out of place in the Kodak advert, like he’s travelled in time from 1953 or 1943 to 1970. The conversational tone of the writing is going for a spontaneous, ‘modern’ tone. The text is interesting too, because it’s aimed totally at men. ‘Dollies grab attention’ it begins and goes on to say, ‘let’s do what the other boys do’.

But, because the advert is in the journal of the Royal Photographic Society the model is wearing trousers and is not overtly naked. The image of her is part of the ‘just a bit of fun’ mindset of the advert.

There’s always a debate about images of women in photography magazines. Are they a sexist cliché? Are they a politically correct cliché? Are they a male fantasy? Are they a realistic representation? The debate is constantly changing.[4]


[1] I’ve long been interested in printed magazines as cultural documents of their time. In the 1970s, the upmarket The New Yorker magazine was read by wealthy, aspiring connoisseurs of high culture and good taste (or at least its readers believed they imbued those qualities), but — more importantly — they had large disposable incomes, which the advertisers targeted. The 1970s spirits adverts in The New Yorker provide a fascinating insight into the culture of the times, and the inspiration behind the aspirant consumers of the era. The 1970s car adverts in The New Yorker reveal a world of semiological signals and signs, the stuff that Roland Barthes wrote so brilliantly about in his 1957 collection of essays Mythologies.


[2] Advertisements from 50 years ago are culturally alien. I’m interested in them as someone who’s writing science fiction set in the future and pondering how people in 50 years time, or more, will see our world. The things that we consider harmless now will be completely unacceptable, and things that shock us now will become ordinary.


[3] The use of the term ‘dolly’ references dolls, models, and air stewardesses (the so-called ‘trolley dolly’) but behind the blokey light humour there’s an unsettling tone, the patronising insinuation that can, so easily, slip into intimidation. It’s reminiscent of the way charismatic bullies use humour.


[4] In an advert for the Volkswagen up! from a campaign in the 21st Century, a woman in a yellow dress strides past a yellow car. What stereotypes does the woman express? Is she empowered, confident and in control, or is she the 21st Century equivalent of Kodak’s ‘sexy dolly’?

2021–02–12


‘The Raw Shark Texts’

When you’re in a bookshop with your mind set on a specific kind of book, you’re less likely to see the other stuff. Even if there’s something good, it’s in the periphery of your attention.

That’s one of the delights of going to a bookshop with an open mind. You might get lucky and discover something wonderful through the power of serendipity.

I remember seeing The Raw Shark Texts in a bookshop when it came out in 2007. I picked it up and looked at it, and then I put it down again and forgot about it. It wasn’t the kind of book that I was looking for… at the time.

Now, over a decade later I’m interested in it just when Steven Hall’s new novel Maxwell’s Demon (2021) is out. Instead of reading that one I’ve opted to see what all the fuss was about with The Raw Shark Texts.

You can’t help admiring Steven Hall for his ambition and his desire to make his literary fiction novel accessible and fun. The Raw Shark Texts is a work of meta-philosophical-fiction. The quotes that begin the sections give away its influences. They’re from Borges, Carver, Murakami, and Calvino.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of not very ambitious books published every year, ones that are chasing the tail of mediocrity, and hardly getting a bite. The truth is, I’ve got a lot of respect for anyone who gets a manuscript published these days, but especially when it’s something like The Raw Shark Texts. It’s a quirky novel, some might call it gimmicky. Sometimes, I wonder how things like this manage to get published. But, thank god, books like this still seem to make it through the pipeline.

I don’t know if the Concrete poetry shenanigans were in the original manuscript or if they were added later after a few conversations. You might call it gamification (which is apt because Steven Hall also writes computer games, and popular, big titles at that). There’s also semi-ASCII art type graphics. This kind of thing usually makes me sigh and roll my eyes when it’s done by writers who think they’re incredibly avant-garde (it’s like Dada and the 1960s never happened). Paradoxically, it’s a cliché of ‘experimental writing’. But, every few years someone manages to pull it off, like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. Even Irvine Welsh incorporated some playful text formatting into his novel Filth.

It definitely works with The Raw Shark Texts. The artwork expands on the novel’s theme that explores the relationship between concept and reality. It’s all part of its meta-fiction core, and virtual reality, which is handled with the metaphysical panache of Donnie Darko.

The text and graphical games are like a code linking ideas with experience. There’s a conceptual shark that lives in the space between life and death. A shark that seems to devour consciousness itself. This evokes the magical realism of Murakami. The twilight consciousness that exists between worlds also reminds me of Alex Garland’s novella Coma, and Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything.

The tone is akin to an awake dream, like the film Last Year at Marienbad (1961) — the delirium of the brain fighting for life, fighting for memories of life while in a state of purgatory. The text formatting games brought back memories of Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves and the novel’s playful fascination with the book-as-artefact (along with its fictional reference matter) evoked J J Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. (2013).

This is clearly a novel where the journey is the destination. The remarkable thing is that it’s been delivered so coherently. I’ve been more confused reading some mainstream action thrillers. Plus, anyone who can get a manuscript published with 29 blank pages in it gets my vote.

2021–02–10


‘Greenland’

The disaster movie is back with Greenland (2020). In fact it never went away. Netflix seems to be chock full of these disaster and apocalypse stories, most of them produced on tiny budgets with very low production values.

Greenland is on Amazon Prime and the production quality, the acting, the story and special effects are all commendable, way above the average for what you might be expecting. It’s probably unfair to compare it to the plethora of copycat cheapo films on Netflix. It’s more like a lower budget 2012 (2009), but with a less ridiculous story.

In the romantic comedy, the writers do everything possible to keep the two romantic leads apart. In the disaster movie, the writers do everything possible to stop the central characters from getting to safety. This is a meteorites hit earth disaster — the Garrity family must get to safety or die story. You might call it an apocalyptic road movie.

After some initial luck, everything goes wrong for the Garrity family. As you might expect with this genre everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

With a limited budget Greenland does a great job with its special effects.

In 2012 America’s lack of confidence was apparent when the Chinese had to be called in to construct a floating arc. In Greenland the USA is, once again, capable of solving its own problems. But not everyone is going to make it.

The tension and pace are nicely maintained and the Garrity family is easy enough to identify with. It’s not pushing the envelope in any way, but its pressing the right buttons.

2021–02–07


Writing a novel: controlling the chaos

The writing process

It’s important to feel in control of the process when you’re writing a novel, but there’s also an element of uncertainty involved in writing fiction. That’s part of the creative process — happenstance, accident, and serendipity.

The trick is to balance the uncertainty with a clear overview of what you want to achieve.

Problems occur in the writing process when writers lose themselves in a fog of possibilities. There have too many ideas. They are not able to properly deliver many of those ideas. They have ideas that contradict one another.

Or they don’t have ideas (good ones at least).

The creative process is part magic (the sub-conscious) and part rational (conscious). It’s a delicate fusion. Because of this, it’s dangerous to over-rationalise it. Or to be completely intuitive. When the creative process is too regimented it stifles the magic and leads to procrastination. When the process is too loose it can fall into chaos.

The writing process requires self-doubt as well as confidence. This is a delicate dance between being open to self-criticism and having the confidence to believe in what you’re doing. Too much doubt can ruin your confidence and motivation. Too much confidence can lead too arrogance, stubbornly pursuing the same old ideas (ones that don’t work, breaking basic rules like having stories without interesting or likeable characters).

Walls and dead ends

A crisis can hit the writing process suddenly, like running into a wall. Bam! Or it can happen slowly like walking down a trail that you know isn’t leading anywhere except a ‘dead end’. You can see it happening, but you might not be able to stop it. You don’t know how.

Either way — hitting a wall or walking down a trail to nowhere — the effects mostly lead to fear and confusion. The palpable sense of being lost and the disappointment of having spent a lot of time and work apparently getting nowhere. The fear can manifest itself in different ways: procrastination, boredom, frustration, and panic.

If you go back to what you were doing before you will probably repeat the same mistakes. The only way forward is to work out how you got here. You have to leave your comfort zone.

So, being productive is all about finding the right creative balance — controlling the chaos. You need to feel good enough about the process in order to settle into a routine and maintain your discipline, both of which are important if you want to complete a novel.

The most likely reasons for getting into a crisis during a writing project are:

Knowing yourself is an important part of the creative process — being able to be critically self-honest. How can you achieve genuine clarity without this?

The first three questions you should ask are:

Part of the problem is that a lot of writing advice is well-meaning but otherwise generalised cliché that doesn’t help much:

The plan

There comes a point when you have to have a plan. You have to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve. Part of this clarity comes from knowing what kind of story you’re telling.

Most writing exercises and workshop classes are designed to give an insight into how the various parts of the writing process work. Join them together and hopefully you have a birds eye view.

Once you have the basic skills it comes down to planning, retaining a certain simplicity, and not getting too bogged down by the technicalities.

‘Real artists ship’

At some point, you have go from thinking about the process to actually doing the writing. You have to deliver on the promise.

Real artists ship. — Steve Jobs

You have to get the first draft completed. It doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, just get it done.

If your plan isn’t working, change your plan. If you can’t deliver your plan, you have the wrong plan. Your plan is the one that works for you, only you and no one else.

The three new questions to ask yourself:

2021–02–07


‘Mank’

Mank (2020) is a really great looking film. It was shot with a RED 8K camera in Super 35mm, and mastered in 6K Dolby Vision. The results are truly stunning.

The story is about Herman Mankiewicz who ‘co-wrote’ Citizen Kane with Orson Wells. It’s a fusion of the ‘washed up’ alcoholic writer story, struggling to complete the screenplay for Citizen Kane, intercut with poignant flashbacks over the course of his career (handled in much the same way as the screenplay he’s writing).

Mank (Gary Oldman) is wrestling with the screenplay, but it’s skipped over in favour of flashbacks from the screenwriter’s past. It’s more about his life journey getting to that place (after being in a car crash). In the suffering writer story the writing is never really focused on. It’s just something there in the background, a handy metaphor for the sweat and tears of life, and a useful Hollywood shortcut to describe a character trying to be true to him/herself (much the same can be said of any career in a ‘Hollywood movie’, with different careers representing shortcuts for an assortment of values and dilemmas). Examples of the suffering writer character appear in films like: Sunset Blvd., Barton Fink, The Shining, Adaptation, and Sideways.

As much as it’s about Mank, the film is also covers the Hollywood studio system, and US politics — how the rich and powerful can buy political power in America.

In the film, Mank would like to be perceived as the serious voice of truth. At best he’s more of an observer of the truth, rather than someone who changes reality. At worst he turns out to resemble something more like Hearst’s court jester.

I have no idea how historically accurate the film is. It’s highly probable that it’s taken huge liberties with the facts. Orson Wells comes out looking pretty bad. Hearst is the man with money and power. He enjoys leading the life of the media mogul with his own court. He enjoys Mank’s refreshing honesty, so long as Mank knows his place.

The story plays out in dramatic scenes, which are like set pieces. Then it cuts back to the suffering writer in his bed. It goes from the dramatic high of the flashback to a low. While the flashbacks emulate Citizen Kane (which chronicles the life-journey of Kane in a complete arc), in Mank it’s more like a random selection of moments so it doesn’t feel as coherent or satisfying. The end result is a little disjointed and doesn’t quite maintain its momentum.

Ultimately, Mank is a loving homage to the golden era of Hollywood. The monochrome aesthetic is truly gorgeous. There’s a lot of level low camera angles, extreme depth of field, and a stunning night scene (shot using the day-for-night technique). The film score (Trent Reznor, Atticus Rossis) is impressively retro-Hollywood without being too imposing (the soundtrack is in mono, continuing the retro quality).

Just sit back and take in the full glory of the aesthetic experience. But don’t expect too much from the story itself.

2021–02–04


‘Leave the World Behind’

Rumaan Alam’s Leave the Word Behind is a literary fiction novel that was published in 2020. Although it was written before the coronavirus pandemic, it encapsulates many of the anxieties of 2020, the pandemic, lockdown and Black Lives Matter — trying to figure out the weirdness of things.

The novel has received critical acclaim but a mixed reception by readers on the internet. A significant number of online reviews have complained that it’s boring and even going as far as giving it the dreaded DNF (did not finish).

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that it’s been talked about as an ‘end of the world novel’. This immediately brings expectations and associations with science fiction genre storytelling. Leave the Word Behind isn’t a post-apocalyptic or pre-apocalyptic genre narrative. It’s something else.

The ‘end of the world story’ that features in The Road, or Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) pre-dates Gothic fiction. It goes back into the realm of fantastic religious writings about the end of things and final judgement. I just didn’t get any of that feeling in Leave the Word Behind.

So, what is it?

I think it’s a darkly comical character study of people reacting to the perception of threat, and struggling to work out what their reaction should be, or even if they should feel threatened. It’s about social assumptions, group membership, prejudice, race and class — loosely wrapped up in a vaguely sci-fi theme that’s only really there to increase the stakes.

The setup of people renting out an Airbnb, with mysterious things happening, communications going dead, and a black couple turning up on the doorstep feels quite theatrical to me. The situation is metaphorical. I never got the feeling that I was in a genre thriller. This was more of a psychological, a philosophical and social observation kind of experience.

I did really enjoy reading Leave the Word Behind. The hardback book published in the UK by Bloomsbury was beautifully designed and typeset. This is one of those books that people enjoy because it provides that literary fiction reading experience. It’s beautifully written, so much so that it feels as if it was effortless to write (which I’m sure it wasn’t). It’s a bit like drinking a bottle of Ola Dubh 12 Year Old Barrel Aged Craft Stout, instead of a can of Sainsbury’s Basic Lager.

The word that strikes me about the writing is, charm. It really charmed me. It deals with racism in a dryly comic way that’s thought-provoking while never yelling at the reader about how angry it is. Maybe there’s something of the film Get Out about it and that comedy of awkwardness? And, although it’s a very different kind of novel, its insightful honesty reminded me of Ben Lerner’s excellent Leaving the Atocha Station. The enclosed world and subtext of ‘personal issues’ was reminiscent of the setup in the computer game Firewatch — strange things are happening, but you’re not sure what exactly.

The goodness starts in the opening paragraph of the novel:

Well, the sun was shining. They felt that boded well — people turn any old thing into an omen.

There’s another line a few pages on when Clay has a cigarette where the mere act of a character having a smoke becomes a philosophical conversation:

He retrieved his cigarettes from the glove box, wincing at the gravel. He sat on the front lawn in the shade of a tree and smoked. He should feel bad about this, but tobacco was the foundation of the nation. Smoking tethered you to history itself! It was a patriotic act, or had once been, anyway, like owning slaves or killing the Cherokee.

It’s very rare for an exclamation mark to make me laugh, but that one did. And if Clay’s thoughts, represented here in free indirect speech, aren’t darkly comic, I don’t know what is.

Part of what makes Leave the Word Behind work so well as social observation and a set of character studies is that it’s written in the third person omniscient. This offers a high density of information to the reader and it allows the writer to move around the space. And yet it also feels incredibly intimate.

Another saving point about the novel is that it never pretends to be something that it isn’t. It’s always true to itself as a work of literary fiction. It never promises to turn into a genre action story. Because of that, I never felt deceived in the same way that Station Eleven left me feeling tricked (the promise of it’s genre style opening turned into a literary fiction novel).

The big quandary for me was how to rate this book. Brilliant or interesting? My verdict probably reflects more about me and my interests and priorities. I’m heavily slanted towards an accessible and fun reading experience with an emphasis on the story, rather than beautiful prose and intricate character observations.

And that’s the problem, I could have put this book down at any point and carried on with my life. It’s good, but I wasn’t immersed in it. It wasn’t addictive. I didn’t have to know what happens next.

John Lanchester’s The Wall for example (another literary fiction novel that uses a science fiction wrapper), like Leave the Word Behind, is successful because of its psychological and tonal atmosphere. There was some plotted action in The Wall and it worked with the overall ambience and fable-like quality of the story. More importantly, I really wanted to know what happened to the characters.

Leave the Word Behind in comparison feels a bit one dimensional. It’s not really taking place at the end of the world it’s taking place in a metaphorical everyday. That’s the whole point. As a result, the ‘end of the world wrapper’ feels extraneous and artful. But without it, would the story be as intriguing?

2021–02–03


Highland 2

Last year I wrote a novel. I experimented with a few different text editors, and even switched to Word for a while.

The truth about writing is that you can do it in just about anything. Pencil on paper. A plain text editor. A bespoke writing app. Most of the choices come down to personal preference and workflow.

At some point, I’ve probably written in most of the better known text editors, word processors and writing apps: Word, Scrivener, Byword, Ulysses, iA Writer. Right now, I’m trying out Highland 2.

For me and my personal preferences there’s definitely a sweet spot between simplicity and having loads of nifty features. The needle is pointed firmly in the direction of simplicity. Highland 2 is a markdown editor, which in itself helps to keep things on the simple side. (When you’re writing fiction you need almost no formatting.)

The main difference between simple text editors and bespoke writing apps, is that dedicated writing apps tend to include some form of document management. This usually means a navigation sidebar. Highland 2 also has an ‘includes’ feature, which can be used to join multiple files (chapters) together into a single document. It’s nice but I’m not sure if it’s a game changer.

Scrivener, for example, builds the ‘separate files’ into a single file and shows them in the sidebar. It’s Scrivener’s most useful feature. Ulysses offers much the same thing with it’s ‘sheets’ feature.

In DBC Pierre’s great book about writing literary fiction, Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out Of It, he gives some truly wonderful tips about writing a novel. One of my favourite pieces of advice is comically simple. On your computer, create a folder with the name of a novel as its title and use a separate file for each chapter. When you’re done, copy the chapters together. In terms of document management it’s really that simple.

In other apps like iA Writer you have to resort to the traditional method that DBC Pierre mentions. Use folders with a separate file for each chapter. On a side note, if you’re using iA Writer, Byword or another text editor that doesn’t offer extensive document management, it’s actually pretty straightforward to merge multiple .txt files using BBEdit.

The other option is to stick with a single file when writing a novel and use something like Word’s outline view. A lot of this comes down to personal preference.

Highland 2 offers a compelling balance of personal customisation while never being over-complicated. It includes some interesting features. If a simple plain text editor is too simple for you and Scrivener or Microsoft Word are too complicated, Highland 2 could be the writing app for you.

2021–01–31


‘Bill and Ted Face the Music’

I saw Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey in 1991, when it was on release in theatres in London. It wasn’t a great film, boring in places, funny in places, and as a shared social movie-going experience it was an uplifting experience. It had a boyish charm and an irreverent attitude about it while also being highly commercialised entertainment.

That was also a night when I met an old friend from university, we had a meal together and a few beers. On nights like that the cinema-going-experience blurs into a mishmash of the company you’re in and the atmosphere of the evening. The film you’ve watched dissolves into a combination of those variables.

I can’t remember seeing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which was released in 1989. Maybe I saw in at the cinema? Maybe I saw it on TV later? I can’t remember, to be honest.

When I watched Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020) I think that I was really hoping to re-experience those good feeling from a night out in London in 1991. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey has received some positive criticism, but I’m mystified why. It’s not great. Bill and Ted are pretty bad. Pretty much everything else around them is more interesting. Their wives are more interesting, their daughters are more interesting, and the killer robot is more interesting.

If Bill and Ted had passed on the reigns to their daughters things might have been better. Instead we have two old blokes in a dads’-movie doing dad-jokes.

2021–01–29


‘Smiley’s People’

Smiley’s People is a six-part 1982 BBC TV miniseries. It’s adapted from John le Carré’s novel, which was published in 1974. George Smiley (Alec Guinness) is on his own, pursuing the death of a retired general.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on here, mostly coming from Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Smiley. I didn’t find it as gripping or as psychologically tense as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC, 1979).

Because Smiley is working on his own for much of the story, he’s operating in the mode that’s similar to a police detective. And the fact that he’s investigating a murder makes it feel more like crime fiction than spy fiction. Plus, because he’s on his own, there’s less opportunity for collegial banter and humour (not that Smiley is much of a talker).

There are poignant moments, plus some light relief. One inadvertently comic scene takes place when the po-faced George Smiley visits a Hamburg sex club as part of his investigation.

The end of the story reverts back into spy fiction mode when Smiley sees an opportunity against his old adversary Karla (Patrick Stewart). The ending is particularly good and provides a satisfying conclusion to the story, which began in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

2021–01–26


Naming the main character

One of the benefits of the first-person viewpoint is that the writer doesn’t have to refer to the protagonist by name. Everything in an ‘I’-novel is ‘I’, and occasionally ‘we’. The writer can keep on using ‘I’ as much as they like. A character with no name can exist quite happily in the first-person viewpoint (and in a screenplay, because films are so visually orientated).

Things are more complicated in the third-person viewpoint. There isn’t an ‘I’ option to differentiate the protagonist from other she or he characters. And so, the protagonist requires a name.

It’s technically possible to avoid referring to a character by name through the use of a generic term or by describing their role. A character could, for example, be called ‘the old man’, ‘Mother’, ‘the Captain’, or ‘the boy’. This simplicity can give the writing the quality of an allegory or a parable. But it can also be annoying or draw attention to its own artifice.

Ideally, the main character’s name should be easy to remember, snappy, and, to avoid confusion, not too similar to any of the other characters.

Ian Fleming referred to James Bond in his novels by using his surname. He is ‘Bond’. While this can sound a little formal and impersonal, it’s a widely used convention. It has the advantage of creating a layer of distance between the writer and the character, which may be advantageous. It also has a certain authorial quality about it.

Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is Leamas. In the more recent Jason Bourne series, Jason Bourne is ‘Bourne’. And likewise, Lisbeth Salanger in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Salanger. (I had to go back and check this, because I couldn’t remember. That’s the power of tags and conventions. Used correctly, they are remarkably invisible.)

Another option is to refer to a character by his or her first name. This immediately puts the reader on a more familiar, personal, and intimate level with them. It also has a literary connotation about it. Ishmael Chambers in Snow Falling on Cedars is Ishmael.

A first name can help the reader empathise with a character who has annoying faults or who exhibits behaviour that’s likely to alienate the reader. Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley, for example, is Tom.

An alternative to using a first or a second name is to use their nickname or an informal version of their name. In Antony Johnston’s The Exphoria Code, Brigitte Sharp is Bridge to her friends and close colleagues, and she’s Bridge to the reader.

Finally, there’s the matter of choosing the actual name.

Names for characters can carry symbolic meaning, resonance, or insinuate certain qualities. The title Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid says a lot just by using the characters’ nicknames. Thelma and Louise isn’t as explicit, but it does convey something. With Harry Potter, Harry sounds a little cheeky, but Potter tells us that he’s ordinary. He’s like us. Or is he? The symbolism of the name Truman in The Truman Show is only revealed as the story unfolds. Truman’s motivation is to discover the truth about himself, to literally be a true man. Donnie Darko says a lot about the character and the tone of the film. Edward Scissorhands is almost the whole film in a name.

James Bond is a man of his word. His word is his bond. It sounds reliable, efficient, and transactional. Brigitte Sharp is sharp by name and sharp by nature. George Smiley is George which suggests Englishness and solid reliability. It’s quite a traditional name. And Smiley is ironic because he seldom smiles or seems particularly happy.

Ishmael Chambers is stuck ruminating about the past in the rooms of his mind. Jason Bourne is born again, this time without a memory of who he really is.

Sometimes a character’s name has an obscure symbolic meaning. With Darth Vader, famously, Darth means dark and Vader is Dutch for father. He is the dark father.

A character’s name can reveal his or her class and status. It can inform the reader that they are an ordinary person, a ‘Joe Average’, a ‘little person’, someone like us.

Names can reveal significant traits, a personal strength or a weakness. It can state the thing that a character is searching for, their motivation, or a force they might not even consciously realise about themselves. It may be literal, or sound vaguely like another word, or it can insinuate meaning by association and resonance.

Biblical and mythological names are commonly used in fantasy and science fiction, as well as specially invented names, which can be created for poetic value or to function as an onomatopoeia. The numbers in the name THX 1138 from the film THX 1138 suggests a loss of individuality and humanity.

Names can be used for comic effect, to sound silly, self-important or to suggest the opposite of what a character is actually like.

There’s also the issue of gender and ethnicity. Surnames have another bonus — they are gender neutral. (The names characters use when referring to other characters can also be revealing.) Names can show where a character comes from ethnically, or perhaps not, both offer potential ways for a writer to subvert the reader’s expectation.

Character names always require careful consideration, even if they are only there for practical reasons (like adding basic realism).

2021–01–25


‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

John le Carré’s spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was published in 1974. Set during the Cold War, it features a middle-aged protagonist, George Smiley, who’s given the task of uncovering a Soviet mole within ‘The Circus’. It’s a defining work of the spy fiction genre.

It’s taken a while for me to get around to reading this novel. I finally managed to read it this month. It’s an impressive work of fiction. In terms of the ‘fun factor’ provided by the reading experience, Len Deighton might have the edge on John le Carré, but in terms of storytelling sophistication, and writing craft, John le Carré probably has the edge on Len Deighton.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels, beginning with 1983s Berlin Game moved on from the nameless protagonist in The Ipcress File. Twenty years later, the Bernard Samson novels are clearly written with a post-Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy awareness. There’s even a moment in the 1979 BBC drama where Smiley uses an alias of Sampson, ‘Sampson with a P’ he reiterates over the phone.

There’s a fair amount of debate about the merits of John le Carré Vs Len Deighton Vs Ian Fleming. I appreciate each of them in their own way. They were writing different kinds of spy stories.

Fleming was consciously writing mainstream genre adventures. His books were aiming for nothing less than the bestseller stand at the airport. Bond is a fantasy action hero derived from the swashbuckling heroes of yesteryear like Baroness Orczy’s hero in The Scarlet Pimpernel (although the Bond in the novels is less ridiculous than the films). Bond also arrived a decade earlier than The Ipcress File and just over two decades before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Casino Royale was published in 1953. The Ipcress File was published in 1962. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was published in 1974. The world was very different in 1953, 1962, and 1974. Each of them can be seen as novels of their respective decades.

Len Deighton wrote spy stories that veer towards literary fiction. Like a Bond adventure, they have immediate appeal, but the main characters are more ‘literary’ and realistic in conception.

John le Carré, on the other hand, wrote literary fiction novels that are also spy stories. Each author has chosen a different emphasis between entertainment and realism, between action sequences and intricate psychological world-building. They can almost be seen as reflecting how spy fiction itself changed from pulp fiction to literature.

Fleming’s novels had charm, action and the fantasy of a classical alpha male hero. They were written to perform as crowd-pleasers. Len Deighton’s protagonists are anti-heroes, armed with a deadly combination of sarcasm and wit. The Bernard Samson novels continue the office politics but with less humour and more melancholia.

Generally speaking, extreme manifestations of pop culture tend to age the fastest. Ian Fleming’s relatively cardboard cut-out character, James Bond, is the most dated of the three writers. Len Deighton’s hero in The Ipcress File is more realistic, and Bernard Samson more so again. But John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy goes for even greater realism and psychological resonance.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a number of superbly realised characters. Not just George Smiley, but Jim Prideaux (who carries the opening of the novel), Peter Guillam, and Ricki Tarr with his complicated romantic life and his doomed love affair with Irina.

The seven-part TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy aired on BBC in late 1979. It is a remarkable adaptation, although its production values are very much that of late 70s TV. The production was shot on 16mm film in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The 1970s era photographic equipment has left an indelible mark — soft lenses, focus issues, chromatic aberration and purple fringing, the colour of the film stock, etc. While disappointing, it is oddly appropriate for the subject matter (watching it in 2021). Sir Alec Guinness is excellent as George Smiley.

The story was adapted into a film in 2011. Perhaps knowing that the performances of the TV series could not be topped they focused on creating a cinematic look and feel. The result feels visually over-designed. While I did enjoy watching it, it seemed like something was lacking. Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley is good but he looks a bit too handsome and healthy for the role.

The meeting room at The Circus illustrates the different approach between the TV series and the film. In the film, the meeting room is a strange almost sci-fi space. It has prominent sound insulation blocks fixed to the walls, which creates an unusual pattern. It has a large, impressively polished hardwood desk. It was probably shot on a specially designed and built sound stage.

In the TV series it’s a small room that looks right for any small business or government office in the 1970s. The small table pushes the characters together creating an almost comical but psychologically claustrophobic space. It was shot on location (for budgetary reasons most likely) and because of that it feels more authentic.

The 2011 film seems strangely theatrical and over-reliant on its visuals. Everything is disconcertingly new, neat and clean, like it’s been freshly unwrapped from cellophane.

2021–01–24


Len Deighton: ‘The Ipcress File’ Vs ‘Berlin Game’

Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File was published in 1962. It’s a product of its time, but it features a protagonist with timeless appeal. His resilience and plucky attitude make him easy to empathise with.

Deighton’s unnamed anti-hero appeared a year before John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Len Deighton’s protagonist is a first-person character, an updated noir detective turned into a quintessential 60s ‘man about town’. Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is a third person character. He’s from the old world, a bygone age. He’s adjusting to the new world, a washed-up figure who espouses the outdated values of self-sacrifice, and chivalric honour. The unnamed anti-hero of The Ipcress File is more interested in seducing women and the quality of his morning coffee. He’s not exactly frivolous, just part of the fashionable 1960s consumerist society. Unlike Leamas, he belongs in the modern world.

The Ipcress File is a young work in some respects, a bit rough around the edges, but it comes with its charms. Its hero is hardly a counterculture rebel. He is a talented ‘small man’ who is locked out of ‘the system’, a popular character type in British storytelling.

Twenty years later, Len Deighton’s Berlin Game (1982), introduced a new hero. This time the central character did have a name — Bernard Samson. Samson is middle-aged and jaded. He’s seen it all before, or at least he thinks he has.

Len Deighton is on top form in Berlin Game. It might not have the vivid newness of the earlier work but the sentences flow smoothly and the experience feels more polished. Bernard Samson is a more nuanced character in a more nuanced story. It’s the first novel in a six-part series that ends with a novel written in the third person (filling in the gaps by providing alternative character viewpoints to Bernard Samson).

Bernard isn’t a young, single lad about town. He’s a family man and the spy ‘game’ is deeply affecting his family, wife and children. Deighton’s eye for social politics is even more acute than before, but with less of The Ipcress File’s trademark movie dialogue sarcasm.

Who is the real enemy? Soviet intelligence, or is it likely to be a narcissistic department head who is determined to crush anyone who suspects him of incompetence?

Berlin Game is a refinement on The Ipcress File. But, like The Ipcress File, it’s limited by its first-person viewpoint. That viewpoint is part of its charm, and its inherent problem.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is really a first-person novel written in the third person. It’s almost completely written from the perspective of Leamas.

John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first novel in the ‘Karla Trilogy’. It uses the third person viewpoint to expand the scope of the storytelling experience. It goes beyond The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Berlin Game. The inherant danger of this approach lies in confusing the reader with too much information, different viewpoints, and generally slowing things down. The result is a different kind of story. In this case, it’s one that mirrors George Smiley’s investigation.

Everything is a balance. There’s a balance between having an immediate impact and in building up a sophisticated context around the main story. I wonder if some of these decisions are age-dependent? The story of the cheeky upstart in The Ipcress File was made for the first person viewpoint. The implications of George Smiley’s investigation, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, demand the third person.

2021–01–22


‘Archive’

George Almore extracts his dead wife’s consciousness from a digital archive and attempts to transplant it into a lifelike android. His first attempt is a rudimentary robot with the mind of a toddler. His second attempt is slightly more sophisticated, and it has the mental age of a teenager. His third attempt has the full consciousness of his wife, and the form of a humanoid robot.

The film explores ideas around authentic experience, what constitutes a unique individual, trauma, and loss. George Almore is a modern day Frankenstein, hoping to bring his wife back from the dead. Does he have the right to bring ‘her’ back, merely to provide emotional comfort for himself?

The production qualities are reassuringly high. There are attractive drone shots of snowy landscapes (reminding me of The Shining). George Almore works in an interesting Brutalist style building. The robots and androids are well conceived, with the final one resembling something from the TV series Westworld, and, going further back, the robot of Maria in Metropolis. If you want a film about AI achieving consciousness, this seems like a missed opportunity, and 2014s Autómata has more to say.

Archive (2020) keeps the story as simple as possible. The main character is essentially alone. He could be on the surface of the moon. And there is something of Moon about this story.

The story unfolds slowly. There are similarities with Ex Machina. It uses established science fiction tropes, but it has enough sense of itself to stand on its own merit.

There are two problems with the story. The first is that we are stuck with the main character, and the script doesn’t make him particularly interesting. He’s a classic character who exists in state of grief. It feels like he needs to change gear and move into another emotional state. But the story locks him into a constant state of loss and being consumed by memories.

This is the classic ‘man who is unable to get over his ex’ story, or the coping with the aftermath of a lost relationship story (due to a partner’s death, or a divorce). It’s familiar Hollywood shorthand, there to gain the audience’s empathy for the protagonist.

The second problem is the twist at the end. This negates most of the emotional resonance that’s been built during the film, which the audience has probably bought into. This is a shame, because the twist is not worth it, and it’s hardly a surprise.

I don’t want to offer too many comparisons with other films, because they might give away the twist. I guessed the twist very early on, and kept hoping that I was wrong. I continued watching the film wanting the script to subvert my expectations, but that never happened. If only the film had been a little more ambitious in that respect.

2021–01–19


‘The X-Files’

I’ve been watching old 1990s films and TV series. Including, among them, a few episodes of the The X-Files.

I enjoyed the series, first time around. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is the dry, depressed protagonist driven by a desire to discover the truth. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is the other half of the investigative duo, which has more than a passing resemblance to the Shelock Holmes and Dr Watson template of detective fiction.

The X-Files was a remarkable success. It aired on US TV from September 1993 to May 2002. It produced two spin-off films with theatrical releases, The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) and The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008).

The 1990s produced a lot of TV series that, to be honest, I’ve forgotten about. Remember any of these?

Some of these have withstood the test of time better than others. Quite a few 90s TV series seemed to die off in the late 90s (almost as if there was a desire by the network bosses to introduce new programming for the new millennium). While others, to my surprise, carried on into the naughties. The big successes among them are The Simpsons, and Friends. It’s worth noting that they are both comedies.

It’s not something that I’ve really looked into extensively, but — at a glance — the 90s were literally an in-between, from the 1980s where each episode followed the same formulaic arc, to more recent TV-series like Lost (2004–2010), which follow a longer form narrative journey that develops over multiple seasons. The overarching storylines were never that compelling in the 1990s series, not in the same way as Breaking Bad, or Mad Men.

‘The X-Files’ was part of the 90s paranormal noir, echoing the early 90s global recession (after the economy had overheated in the late 1980s), and a Pre-Millenium Tension, which was itself the name of a 1997 Tricky album.

The first episode of The X-Files is worth watching. It’s remarkably efficient in the way it tells the viewer what’s going on, the rules of the story, and who the main characters are. They literally walk into shot and introduce themselves. Dana is interviewed and given her mission briefing (with echoes of the mission briefing at the start of Apocalypse Now). The production qualities stand up well, the editing, the audio, the faux-documentary camera work, and the poignant but never overwhelming background music.

When it first aired, my interest in the series tailed off because it felt too much like ‘more of the same’. They seemed to spend a lot of time driving around in their nice-but-ordinary car, permanently clutching paper coffee cups, walking around at night pointing a torch directly into the camera. Fox Mulder was always mumbling about a potential breakthrough that would inevitably be mysteriously hushed up, pointing to some wider government conspiracy. These ingredients, including the flirtatious relationship between the two main characters, made the series the longest-running science fiction series on American TV.

For viewers, it ticked a lot of boxes — suspense, mystery intrigue, horror, conspiracy — but it was really about two relatable, talented yet ordinary, characters struggling to be taken seriously in their work place.

Fox Mulder and Dana Scully dressed like a couple of salespeople, and drove around in a salesperson’s car, staying over at hotels where salespeople stayed over. They were like salespeople, but on a special mission, selling their kooky belief that the truth was being covered up by the government, that ‘they’ (aliens) were already here. All they needed was the evidence, because ‘the truth is out there’, as the tagline said.

Is there more to The X-Files? Does it have a deeper meaning? Probably not. But I was pretty surprised when I heard expressions like ‘fake news’ being mentioned by the characters. Suddenly I was jolted from 1993 back to 2021. Other tag lines to episodes include: ‘Trust No One’, ‘Deny Everything’, ‘Deceive Inveigle Obfuscate’, ‘Believe the Lie’, ‘All Lies Lead to the Truth’, ‘Nothing Important Happened Today’, ‘Accuse Your Enemies of That Which You are Guilty’, ‘You See What I Want You to See’, and, suddenly, it almost seems possible that The X-Files not only tapped into a wider social cynicism, but might even have been a metaphor for something more profound? Again, probably not.

The X-Files is all atmosphe and tone, and a little flirtation. It was a highly marketable formula that spoke about anxiety and unease, but ultimately it never led anywhere.

2021–01–18


First person, present tense Vs third person, past tense

In the last two years I’ve thought a lot about what point of view and which tense I should be using in my fiction.[1] The two options that I’ve seriously considered have been, first person with the present tense, and third person with the past tense.

There’s no right or wrong. Some of the most immersive, and thrilling reads I’ve experienced have used a variety of viewpoints and tense. Done well, almost any combination can work effectively.

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best examples of what a writer can achieve using the first person with the present tense. Another excellent, and very different example is The Hunger Games. In some ways, young adult fiction is where first person with present tense shines best, but not always. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood is another example.

For third person, past tense, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is an outstanding example. It’s a third person past tense novel that really gets inside the main character’s head. It has the intimacy of a first person viewpoint. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is a great example of how the third person can explore a character with subtlety, controlling how the reader perceives the protagonist. Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, and Lee Child’s One Shot are two more examples, both illustrating how the third person can be used to deliver a more dramatic and richer storytelling experience. There’s also Stieg Larsson’s excellent The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

First person, present tense has real immediacy. When you open up a book and read the first paragraph, you immediately meet the character. The present tense accentuates the real-time experience of living in the character’s thoughts. It’s a journal-like viewpoint — I did this, I did that, these things are happening to me.

The snag is that the reader is stuck in the character’s thoughts, which can feel claustrophobic. Also, the first person viewpoint cuts down on the available information the writer can provide to the reader (conversely, the lack of a character’s situational awareness can be used to create an unreliable narrator, and a sense of the reader experiencing the story at the same time as the character). But, it is, by definition, a limiting way of telling a story. It’s like filming with only one camera. The single viewpoint directly connects the prose style and tone to the character.

The third person past tense combination breaks that direct link. It opens up how the writer can explain what is happening by providing the potential to include a lot more information. Using the film analogy again, it’s like having a multi-camera setup. This doesn’t mean that there has to be multiple character viewpoints. It is possible to stick to a single character viewpoint and use it to provide a more defined, information rich, situational awareness. Part of the freedom and benefit it offers comes from not being constrained by the language and tone of the character, [1] although that can be inferred.


[1] There’s another post: First Person Vs Third Person Viewpoints, which I posted in May 2019 that covers the same subject from a slightly different perspective, and not in as much detail.

[2] It is a paradoxical irony of the first person viewpoint that the author is writing it but presenting it as coming from the character (which the author has invented).

2021–01–14


Three American stories

Last week perceptions of US democracy took a knock when Trump supporters occupied Capital Hill. From a storytelling perspective this could dissipate from mainstream public awareness, or it could go on to have a lasting impact, much like the Watergate scandal did in the 1970s. Right now it’s difficult to tell.

I’ve selected three American story types to represent a changing America, especially America’s changing perception of itself.

The Old American West

The Western (the story of the Old American West) is possibly America’s greatest, and first, story about itself.

Today people will see a glaring hole in the timeline of American storytelling, one where slavery and the slave owning society is completely unrepresented, because American storytelling skipped over this phase and went straight to the myth of the Cowboy and Indian.

The Western story is the frontier story, the wilderness trek, the ramshackle small town, one where European settlers come into conflict with the Native American Indian.

The story was a meme before internet memes existed. It was the genre of choice for countless pulp fiction novels, comics, TV shows, books, and films where outnumbered settlers fought off the barbaric Indian. The Western is a celebration of the heroic individual, the rugged individual, the American pioneer spirit.

The Western story is based on myth and legend, and frankly a whole lot of bullshit. The Cowboy was the good guy and the Indian was the bad guy. It was clear who the audience was supposed to identify with.

The settlers, the Cowboys, and the US Cavalry were making a safer and better world, not for the Indians (they were the bad guys so they didn’t matter).

The Western is a story about power and empire — the power to tell the story that Americans wanted to hear and believe about themselves. That they were the good guys, thus creating an empire of the mind, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in De La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America), in 1835:

I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people which is commissioned to explore the wilds of the New World; whilst the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote its energies to thought, and enlarge in all directions the empire of the mind.

The Gangster Story

The second American story I’ve chosen is the gangster story. Like Cowboys and Indians, this story is also clearly defined by good and bad characters, in this case it’s Cops and Robbers. The gangster story featured in pulp fiction and ‘B’ movies, where tough talking men fought one another for control of the city. It wasn’t personal, it was business.

The gangster story is the story of free market Capitalism taken to an extreme. It’s deregulation paradise. It’s the story of family, of personal sacrifice, of loyalty, and of extreme violence in the pursuit of the American dream. ‘Get rich or die trying.’ The only things that matter in life are money, power, and status, and in the gangster story characters will do anything, risk anything, to get what they want.

This is a story about winners and losers. It’s about the deluded charisma of the fanatic, a central character’s mania for attaining riches beyond belief. And everyone is just a sucker. Unlike The Western it’s a less appealing vision of America. The action has moved from a vast landscapes and small towns, to an urban environment, the ruthless city. There’s little in the way of the noble hero here, but plenty of car chases and gunfights, and doomed romance.

The American Dystopia

As if the gangster story wasn’t enough, there’s the American dystopia (in the widest sense). In this story something’s gone wrong with the entire nation. Unlike the gangster story where the baddies might have a certain macho appeal, here the fabric of society itself is rotten.

The American dystopia has many versions of itself. There’s the conspiracy story where the government is lying to its people, pod people are being grown in the local farm, and the hero doesn’t know who to trust.

There’s the post-apocalyptic story where the whole world has gone crazy and there isn’t much left to salvage. A lone hero or a small band of heroes struggles to maintain their humanity and restore a semblance of civilisation.

There’s the 1970s disaster movie where greed and incompetence has compromised basic safety. Impossibly tall buildings will burn, ships will capsize in the ocean, and dams will crack apart, and nuclear power stations will go into meltdown.

Government is ineffective at solving even the basic problems and the corporations are running out of control. There will be wide scale corruption, and a crazy religious cult will eventually take control.

It’s all going wrong in the American dystopia. But there are good people out there too, brave individuals, people who care, people who are attempting to make a difference. But, should they no longer exist, there will always be the superhero to save America.


What three American stories would you include?

What else could I have put in? The Film Noir detective story? Space opera? Something on a lighter note perhaps, like the musical or the romantic comedy? What do those stories say about America, and how it sees itself?

It’s interesting how as writers we like to believe that we’re bigger than events, at least theoretically, but really we’re just reflecting prevailing public desires and fears.

2021–01–13


The reductionist approach to storytelling

To be slightly reductionist… okay, very reductionist, there are three basic stories:

And those three stories have three different tones:

And the three basic stories, and three basic tones, have three basic meanings:

2021–01–12


‘We’

I really wanted to like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. It’s a classic science fiction novel, written in 1920 – 1921, in Russian, but suppressed by the Communists, and published in French and English (in America, in 1924). It’s one of the earliest novels that chronicles a totalitarian state, which has been engineered to provide a Modernist utopia.

The idea of the Modernist utopia was big in the 1920s and 1930s, it foresaw the possibility of a world created by engineers and scientists, amazing ingenuity and technologies, providing solutions for public health and welfare, but there was always the underlying fear that people would reject its uniformity and, instead, prefer something more ‘messy’. In a way, it was predicting the 1950s faith in science. In simple terms, it was a tension between the civilised ideal and the inner ‘savage’ (to borrow a word from that era). Novels like We and Brave New World epitomised this intellectual anxiety.

I wrote my undergraduate theses on the satirical drawings, paintings and writing of Wyndham Lewis, and, We reminded me of Blast! (1914) with its bombastic language (I became interested in Wyndham Lewis through Mark E Smith and the indie band, The Fall, whose lyrics were partly influenced by Blast!). Vorticism and Futurism were interested in representing the modern world through Modernist art, reflecting engineering, mechanisation, and mass production, and the glamour of speed.

Although, We is one of the first novels of its kind and it contains many brilliant ideas (a totalitarian police state, people living in glass buildings, an X-ray lobotomy, execution by vaporisation, a post-privacy society, ticketed sex sessions as a leisure activity, the collectivist power of the group, the loss of individuality, characters who have numbers instead of names), its delivery lacks drama.

Some of the problem comes down to its age (it was written 100 years ago), and its an odd fusion of bombast and woodenness. Stylistically it’s a product of its time. There’s a lot of overblown Modernist enthusiasm, redundant chapter sub-headings, and hyperbolic gothic-style language! And! Exclamation marks!

I feel sad for being mean about this novel. It might have been brilliant in the 1920s, but I’m reading it now, and it feels dated. It’s like a parody of Modernist science fiction. Sentences are cut short with an ellipse… WORDS AND SECTIONS OF TEXT ARE WRITTEN IN UPPERCASE.

We is written as a journal and reading it feels like a journal narrated with the overly dramatic voice of a Pathé Newsreel announcer, an irritating crooning that grates on a contemporary ear.

The writing is skeletal. There’s little sense of any change of pace. What could have been its more dramatic moments and amazing world building are stated in a matter-of-fact way without any kind of dramatic embellishment. I found that odd, but not too far removed from popular pulp fiction of the time. (Having said this, We makes the 1930’s pulp fiction series Doc Savage look almost sophisticated.) A writer today would approach this in a completely different way, dramatising the story, building the intrigue and tension. While the stories we tell might not have changed much in a century, the way we tell them has.

And yet, there are loads of brilliant ideas in the novel — a decade before Brave New World, and two decades before 1984.

This new translation feels more up-to-date than the older one (I did glance at that, but opted for this one instead). There’s an introduction by Margaret Atwood, which is interesting. She praises the novel as an influence on 1984, which in-turn influenced The Handmaid’s Tale. George Orwell’s review of We, which he wrote for the Tribune is also included. He came to the same conclusion as me, saying that it’s an inventive and intriguing vision of the future, but the delivery of the narrative is underwhelming. Orwell read the French translation of the novel, and wrote:

…it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one…

I almost wish that I hadn’t read, We, because it was a much better novel in my imagination than in reality. But, I’m glad that I did. Clunky as it is, with its over-egged style, its gothic-inspired (Expressionist?) language, and its dramatic deadness and lack of pace — it is one of those books that I feel I should have read, and now I have.

2021–01–11


Science fiction: a label and a genre category

Introduction

Genre categories are really designed to help people find the books they want to buy in a bookshop, or borrow from a library. They help readers discover similar stories to the one they’ve read.

They’re also an easy way for writers and marketing departments to communicate what a potential audience should expect from a work of fiction. Genre categories are just ‘labels’ or ‘classifications’. Although they’re designed to guide readers, they can also box readers into having certain expectations.

So, without getting too academic, I want to explore (go on a wild goose chase) what the Science Fiction genre category means. Is it just a convenient ‘label’?


What is it?

The Science Fiction genre category encompasses an enormous range of published material, some of it created by authors who are keen use the term and others who aren’t.

One of the confusing things about Science Fiction is that it’s usually sold in bookshops, in a section called, Science Fiction and Fantasy, or even, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. ‘Fantasy’ is another broad genre that means different things to different people. Personally, I see it as being more about magic, but there’s a crossover between the two. Star Wars, for example is a work of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has space travel and characters with magical powers.

Another blurred relationship is the one between science fiction and speculative fiction (where science fiction is seen as a sub-category of speculative fiction).

The speculative fiction label is interesting, because it’s quite an accurate term in many ways, but you never see a Speculative Fiction section in a bookshop. It’s only something that ‘speculative fiction’ writers talk about, or people in the academic world.

Generally speaking, science fiction is based on rational principles, which is to say a logically constructed world with rules (although a Fantasy story can also have rational principals).

Science fiction stories can take place in alternative worlds, or future worlds. There’s often references to time travel, space travel, artificial lifeforms, genetic engineering, advanced technologies, and alien beings.

But this is missing the point of science fiction somewhat, because it’s really about the characters in these worlds, and how technology impacts on their lives.

Science fiction is often differentiated by the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction. If the fiction is based on hard science or not. For me, the most important thing is, do I believe this? Is it authentic?

I don’t believe in time travel, but it doesn’t stop me from enjoying time travel films as a storytelling device. If there’s a modicum of explanation, I’m able to suspend my disbelief, because time travel brings entertaining possibilities and intriguing ideas to a story.

What happens when science and reality outpace science fiction?

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars, is a story about a civilisation living on Mars. It was published in 1912 when people didn’t know that much about Mars. Now that NASA has sent a spacecraft around Mars and onto its surface, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that humanoid people live there. A story about people living on the surface of Mars is hard to buy into, but in 200 years time it’s possible that people might colonise Mars.

As scientific knowledge progresses, our expectations of science fiction also evolve. In 2018, a viral pandemic seemed like an unlikely science fiction ‘B’ movie plot, a genre cliché even. In 2019 it became reality.

1920s and 1930s science fiction stories like Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon look silly to us now because both the science, and the social world they represent has changed. 1930s robots and spacecraft are quaint and naive, possessing a comic quality.

An inconclusive conclusion

What have I learned from this? The answer is, not much.

Science fiction is usually about the future or alternative worlds. It’s usually about technology, and people coping with the effects of technology, cultural and social change on their lives. That much makes it a relevant genre for today’s readers.

While the label ‘speculative fiction’ does make a lot of sense, there’s no Speculative Fiction section in a bookshop. And until there is one, and readers actually know what speculative fiction is, science fiction is a known quantity. It is a genre category that readers understand, and know where to find in bookshop, which probably means the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror section.

2021–01–10


‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

This post contains plot spoilers.


I’ve been meaning to write up something about, The Handmaid’s Tale for a while, but I never gotten around to it.

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 literary fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale (which I read last year, during the summer) is one of the most significant and influential dystopian stories in contemporary culture. I read the book, then I listened to the audiobook (read by Elisabeth Moss). I watched three seasons of the TV series (when they aired), it features Elisabeth Moss as Offred. I watched the film, which was originally released in 1990.

Margaret Atwood sees the novel as speculative fiction rather than science fiction. It’s also referred to as, an ‘American dystopian tragedy’. The story takes place in the near future, when a conservative, quasi-religious movement has taken over the US in a coup.

It’s clear that a lot of thought and research has gone into the novel’s world building. Atwood is interested in power politics and how democratic institutions can be usurped by authoritarian movements. This aspect of the novel makes it relevant to a contemporary audience, especially at the tail end of the Trump presidency.

The novel is a work of ‘Literary Fiction’ and this is reflected in it being a character study Offred, the main character. The world around her is explored through her eyes. In classic literary fiction mode it’s an interior monologue that spends a lot of time inside her head. This produces somewhat mixed results. The reader gets to know Offred and care about her as a character, but it also slows the narrative down. I found the pace to be pretty glacial, and I had to force myself to complete the book. I appreciate that much of this is subjective and many readers will delight in Atwood’s rich literary language and the opportunity to live inside Offred’s head. The writing is great, better (in my view) than Orwell (who Atwood cites as an influence). Offred’s thoughts are often capped by a slightly weird question, or a desirous thought. She’s a remarkably intelligent and observant character.

The novel, which is a ‘feminist dystopian tragedy’, does a great job of handling the politics of this repressive society. It takes a nuanced approach rather than a comic book ‘all men are evil’ tone. The society it depicts is hierarchical, not all men have equal power, some women have more power than men lower down the class ladder, but at the same social level, men always have more power than women. There’s also a power dynamic between the female characters, with many of the women being complicit in maintaining the system.

The comparison with George Orwell’s 1984 is difficult to avoid. They are the product of different generations and moments in time (post Second World War Stalinism vs 1980s Regeanomics and Neoconservatism). Atwood’s take is sufficiently different from Orwell’s, drawing on the history of American Puritanism. Its subtlety helps it to evade the post-1984 cliché of the repressive police state. In terms of basic storytelling, Offred is a more engaging character than Winston, although both novels have an intellectual approach to storytelling.

The narrative weaves between Offred’s current reality and memories of her past life before the authoritarian quasi-religious movement took power. Another way to understand the novel is to see it as a story about loss. Offred’s personal loss is a metaphor for the death of the 1960s Counter Culture and the prevailing assault of reactionary US conservatism.

Although classified as ‘speculative fiction’ or a ‘dystopian tragedy’, it’s a Literary Fiction novel that happens to use many of the established genre tropes from science fiction. Population control (over population) and population decline (infertility) are recurring Science Fiction themes. The Handmaid’s Tale deals with population decline (pollution has reduced fertility).

Atwood does a great job of exposing the power modes and the cultural hypocrisy of the regime, which refuses to accept male infertility and officially blames women for the declining birthrates (although the actual real-world science of fertility is usually more complex).

Another example of the hypocrisy in this culture comes when The Commander takes her to a club that caters for the regime’s elite (there’s alcohol, and sexual slavery). This environment is the polar opposite to the conservative moral code officially endorsed by the regime. The hypocrisy and double standards takes its cue from real-life cults, sects, and repressive theocratic groups, where punitive moral codes are often not followed by the very people who enforce them.

One of the glaring problems with the novel is why it was written in the present tense. Who writes or narrates their own journal in the present tense? Obviously, this is a literary device that’s designed to make the near future seem more immediate to the reader. The metafiction ending contradicts the present tense immediacy, making the whole experience feel incongruous (more like a stylistic choice).

The story is revealed to be a historical document, a transcription made from audio cassette recordings. Offred’s testimony is being discussed at an academic seminar. In literary fiction, the found letter or journal is as old as the form itself, as is metafiction, but I still didn’t understand why it was necessary to frame the narrative in this way.

The final chapter is a parody or a satirical take on an academic seminar, which discusses Offred’s account and how authentic the transcript is. It implies that the reader should question everything that he or she reads.

There’s a parallel between the two texts, because they are both transcripts. The ending deadened the story for me, sacrificing the drama for intellectual artifice, and to illustrate the irony that sexual discrimination is still occurring in the distant future. Another reason for the bolted-on ending is to deny the story a typical genre ending (where good defeats evil and the balance is restored).

The found journal as a literary device is usually prefaced with an introduction at the beginning (to alert the reader, and often to distance the author from the text). Without this warning, it feels like the reader is being tricked. It’s like a character suddenly waking up from a dream at the end of a story.

While the writing in The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, I didn’t really enjoy reading it as a novel. The story is slowed down by Offred’s interior monologues. The story doesn’t feel like it’s making the most of its dramatic potential, which is exactly what you’d expect from a work of literary fiction like this — because it isn’t a genre, action-based thriller.

Film and TV adaptations are unique to themselves, and they succeed or fail on their own terms. There’s an old joke that terrible novels often make great films… and vice-versa. The Handmaid’s Tale is a decent novel, but, for my money, the TV Series offers a more satisfying delivery of the story. The TV series brings different variables into play — the locations, the costumes, the visual world building, and the performances. All these elements have really brought the story to life.

The novel must have been a challenge to adapt to the screen because of its prominent internal monologue. But it has translated brilliantly onto the screen, making the most of the intrigue by holding back on Offred’s backstory.

As an aside, the novel has aged well, but how well will the TV series age in the years to come?

There’s a lesser known film version of The Handmaid’s Tale (which was released in 1990), is already a product of its time. It looks and feels dated — the hairstyles, the costumes, the lighting, and sound quality, and the soundtrack (by the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto) all feels dated. None of it has aged well. And, in comparison to the TV series, it looks incredibly low budget.

The film suffered through the usual production problems that afflict troubled projects — changes of director, a disaffected screenwriter (Harold Pinter), rewrites, actors having their own views about the script (in this case to reflect the source material more closely). The end result doesn’t really work. There are plenty of talented actors on board, but something’s lacking. It doesn’t know if it should be a genre flick, or a contemplative, character-based drama.

The film is surface focused, which is to say that, apart from a brief voice-over at the end, we don’t really know what’s going on in Offred’s head. There’s not even enough action or drama to turn it into a thriller or a psychological thriller. Instead, it exists in an uneasy in-between, neither replicating the merits of the novel, nor bringing anything satisfyingly cinematic about it.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been an incredible journey. After an acclaimed novel, and then a disappointing film, the TV series came along (plus the politics of the Trump presidency), catapulting The Handmaid’s Tale into a mainstream phenomenon.

2021–01–08


Pornification

Once there was just porn, and it was mostly about men looking at women, sensual, erotic images of the female form, and then, all-of-a-sudden, porn exploded into new areas, until almost everything had morphed into porn of one kind or another.

Food was an early area to be reimagined as neu-‘porn’. We used to just eat the stuff, not photograph it, well… most of us. But with the advent of social media and blogging, food porn took on a new mainstream lease of life beyond the coffee table book: amazing 12 ingredient smoothie > iPhone snap > Instagram. Check. 11.07 AM Danish pastry, attractive cafe interior, seductive morning sunlight > iPhone > Twitter. Check. The ritualised pre-mealtime photo sessions for social media — alluring lighting, shuffling the table contents around to improve the aesthetic > Snapchat. Check. Vlog. Check. Total food pornification. What was a simple pleasure, a simple moment — pornified.

We use to admire those gadgets, marvel how that Walkman was so tiny, and how the construction was so well engineered — wow, this miniaturisation thing the Japanese have pulled, isn’t it just fantastic? And that was it. Let’s use the damned thing already. But no, not now. Not now that technology has turned into gadget porn. Cue images of shiny, ‘lickable’, perfect looking devices, not a speck of dust anywhere, fresh from the packaging, photographed on a granite rock, or a weathered oak beam. Gadgets, objects of desire, sensualised, magical, always alluring, going beyond functionality: the personification of what we want, the sum of our desires. Oooh, the mesmerising and shiny symmetry. It looks so alluring. Do we need it? Probably not, but it seems to shiny and clean and enticing.

And then there’s gun porn; guns used to be photographed like products from a cheap ‘80s mail-order catalogue, but now they’re a celebration of some pseudo-religious, anti-urban, great American outdoors lifestyle. It’s morphed into another porn genre, with its own sub-genres: Old American West lifestyle, Urban Survival, Wilderness Hunter, Law Enforcement Officer, etc — in America, guns are commonly incorporated into ‘outdoors porn’, which includes everything from designer camping equipment, retro fireside kit, truck porn, to wilderness porn.

This is kind of convenient because wilderness porn even has a place for those makeshift abodes, sans plumbing, sans central heating, where it’s back to crackling log fires and grass covered roofs: the chic fusion of lumberjack man meets architectural connoisseur… cabin porn.Yes, even the humble hut in the middle of nowhere, tastefully kitted out with chick or cutely retro-basic knickknack — and photographed on a stunning Medium Format Phase One camera (camera porn anyone?) — can be pornified: transformed from the apparently ordinary and unassuming and functional, into the over-ritualised, fetishised object of consumer or lifestyle worship.

Because that’s what this is all really about — turning things that functionally exist for a purpose into packaged sensation — commercialised opportunities, content marketing, desktop wallpaper, visual inspiration, representations of a lifestyle, of desire. Transforming functional stuff, that mostly exists for a purpose, into something more than it should be, overemphasising its place in the importance of things. Like any porn addict: seduced by form, but forgetting to actually live.

2016–01–27


Turning off social media

I used to consider myself an ‘early adopter’ with technology, especially with things like social media. That was when social media seemed to be the solution to a puzzle that would undoubtedly unlock value and potential in my life. But, a few years ago I went to work deleting my social media content and closing accounts. I’ve never looked back.

The two main benefits of shrugging off social media are, one, the additional time I’ve gained to do whatever I want, and, two, the freedom from having to worry about it. Social media is a time intensive hog, and as a form of addiction, a completely unnecessary anxiety. Of course, I do fully accept that it’s useful for some people, often having to promote their business, or for work. And yes, that’s probably the best place for social media, because social media really is work. Instead of populating your social media accounts with content you could be: talking to a real person, writing poetry, editing your private journal, watching a film or reading a book. You could even spend this extra time looking out of the window, or taking the dog for a walk — any of these would be far more productive than creating pseudo-‘authentic’ content.

Social media is incredibly fake, and that’s not to mention the cesspit of trolls and stupid comments, but —almost as bad — it’s chock full of dull nonsense that no one should ever have to look at. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that people need this crap. It’s far more rewarding and — you could even argue — ‘spiritually’ productive, to do almost anything else. And, it’s remarkably easy to turn it off — you just have to get over the fear that your world probably won’t end when you give it the miss. I thought leaving social media would give me a real jolt, it might create a vacuum. The truth is far more prosaic; in reality life just goes on. Everything continues exactly as it did before, except that you’re not pouring huge amounts of time into a bottomless hole.

Even if you can’t face deleting your social media content and accounts, you can just walk away from social media for a time. The earth won’t stop turning. A few days later you probably won’t even miss it. There’s a lot to be gained from just going from social media production to only social media consumption. It might be a useful first step towards realising that you can go the whole hog.

The anxiety of constantly checking your phone for Facebook updates or tweets is a modern affliction that most people would find unacceptable in any other part of their life. Social media addiction is a modern illness fuelled by the constant fear of missing out (FOMO). If you switch it off, even for a moment, something amazing might be happening… and you’ll miss it. Nothing’s going to happen. Turn it off, and do something more meaningful — you won’t look back.

2016–01–03


‘Lady in the Lake’

I’m a huge fan of odd, weird and experimental films… or at least I used to be. I think my appetite for this kind of storytelling wained as my toleration for plotless and self-indulgent narratives dwindled. Upon rewatching Stalker and Eraserhead, for example, I still get them, but… yeah.

There’s another stream of experimental storytelling that’s aimed at mainstream audiences. I’m thinking about Hitchcock’s Surreal dream sequences, the dominant voiceover of Blast of Silence, and Lady in the Lake. Getting an experimental storytelling technique to work for a general audience is a difficult trick to pull off.

On the face of it Lady in the Lake (1947) shouldn’t be an experimental film. It should be a black and white film noir with wisecracking dialogue and men in hats smoking cigarettes in cheap hotel rooms. Lady in the Lake has all that, but it is experimental, because it attempts to replicate the first person perspective of Raymond Chandler’s novel.

It probably goes without saying, students in their first semester at film school attempt this kind of trick, as if no one has ever done it before, much like every creative writing class has someone (guilty as charged) writing an assignment in the second person like they’re the first person to attempt this feat.

So yes Lady in the Lake is shot in a first person viewpoint and the protagonist is the camera. This should be inventive and witty and different, but unfortunately it just feels like a gimmick. The protagonist is mainly the camera viewpoint with a disconnected voice. Occasionally he’s visible in a mirror or a reflection. This should be fun, but it feels unnatural and forced — it takes you out of the story. Having said this, it does make you appreciate the language of film — editing, and being able to show different viewpoints with ease. Film is essentially a form of Cubism.

More recently, 1917 goes for a fluid, one-take look and feel, forsaking the edited cut. And while it was critically acclaimed, I also found the technique irritating. The edited cut is actually a very natural storytelling language, after all, we blink every few seconds. Done well, film edits are invisible (like a dialogue tag in written fiction).

So, getting rid of all that cinematic richness does not feel liberating, it is a limitation that wears thin. Strangely enough, I don’t have this feeling when I read a novel in the first person, but I can understand why some people might.

Lady in the Lake is a nice idea, but shooting an entire film from one character’s actual viewpoint quickly becomes claustrophobic, annoying, and it draws attention to the technique instead of the story.

2021–01–04


Lisbeth Salander and the Millennium Series

Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are the central characters in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. In the first novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005, Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women) there’s a sub plot and a main plot. Lisbeth Salander’s backstory, she’s a survivor of sexual abuse, forms the sub-plot. She works with journalist Mikael Blomkvist as an independent investigator. They have a sexual relationship, although she also has sexual relationships with women. She likes Mikael Blomkvist even though they’re not really suited to one another. He already has an ongoing relationship with a female journalist, and this one (unlike his one with Lisbeth Salander) represents respectable normality.

Lisbeth Salander’s backstory (a superhero-like origin story) and sub-plot foreshadows the sexual abuse related main plot. Because we follow her experience that much closer it feels more dramatic and visceral. And, in some ways, the main plot is a let down, comparatively.

Incredibly, Lisbeth Salander’s character originated from the idea of a character who resembled a grown up Pippi Longstocking. Clearly, Stieg Larsson developed her into an altogether different kind of character, a dark survivor who is easy for the reader or viewer to empathise with because of the injustice that she’s faced.

She’s a very alienated character who trusts no one. She is independent, a talented computer hacker, resourceful, and she never forgives transgressions made against her. She’s been described as showing traits associated with Asperger syndrome because of her inability to form relationships with other people or to see beyond her own direct experience.

The character in the novels feels like a slightly different one to the Lisbeth Salander in the films. She also changes in the novels, gaining confidence and becoming more capable in The Girl Who Played with Fire than she was in the first novel. Like other crime genre characters, Jack Reacher for example, she is verging on a cartoon character, but like Jack Reacher she’s always portrayed in a realistic manner that makes her believable as a real person and not a classic hero or a contemporary superhero. She is, in short, one of the most vividly engaging female genre characters ever created.

2021–01–03


‘The Minimalists: Less is Now’

I’ve long been interested in the way that a simple solution often provides the most elegant answer to a problem. Complexity is often associated with: confused thinking, inefficiency, bullshit, pretension, a lack of clarity, bad customer service, duplication, and duplicity.

Einstein’s genius was his ability to turn complexity into a simple equation: E=mc2. Steve Jobs was another genius. He used simplicity to design products that offered amazing user experiences (Ken Segall describes this process in, Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success.)

At the same time, there is such a thing as over-simplification. There’s a benefit in making things simple enough, but no simpler.

First things first. People define minimalism in different ways. So, the first question is, what is minimalism?

According to the Cambridge dictionary:

Minimalism is: A style in art, design, and theatre that uses the smallest range of materials and colours possible, and only very simple shapes or forms.

In other words, the Cambridge dictionary defines it as an aesthetic look.

The way minimalism is used by The Minimalists (Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus) in the documentary, The Minimalists: Less is Now, is really about personal lifestyle choices, especially how people manage their finances, and impulse purchases of unnecessary stuff to fill an emotional void.

The process they’re suggesting is pretty straightforward. Decluttering the junk from your life will take away the distraction of owning ‘stuff’ and provide you with a simpler life, from which you can focus on the things that really matter.

Simplicity: The fact that something is easy to understand or do.

As we struggle to figure out our lives, the crap we own can get in the way of our personal self-development.

But, I’d argue, emotions and feelings also block our development, and they’re much harder to chuck in a bin. The Minimalists realise this and part of what they’re suggesting comes with a wider framework of practical and sensible solutions to real world problems (relationships, money problems, social expectation, and peer pressure).

One of the dangers of going ‘minimalist’ is that it’s just an aesthetic, personal taste. Instead of having less as a means to gaining an insight into your life, it turns into some kind of fashion snobbery, dogma, or reductivism:

Reductivism: The practice of considering or presenting something complicated in a simple way, especially a way that is too simple.

The documentary asks a simple question really — how can you be happy with less? I enjoyed the film and I broadly agree with the message. The Minimalists make a lot of great points, but I think I can simplify the question even further — how can you be happy with less?

What do we really need to be happy in a consumerist society where people are buying endless amounts of junk as an emotional distraction, and replacing experiences with stuff? The answer is more human interaction and more meaningful experiences instead of buying more stuff.

It’s an appealing and simple message. I get it, and I believe it. It’s also a very old fashioned religious message from the teachings of the Buddha to the Christian New Testament. There’s an overlap between spirituality and aesthetics, between owning less and the monastic lifestyle.

If you spend less on crap, you don’t need to earn so much. There’s less financial pressure. Obviously, the trick to all this is being able to persuade yourself that you’re better off with less. This is easer said than done, especially if you have kids.

On a basic psychological level, chucking things out also gives people a sense of being in control, which is a valuable thing that goes beyond the practical benefits of efficiently reorganising your stuff.

The Minimalists have wrapped a lot of big questions around the clutter-free lifestyle. How free are we, if we’re compelled to buy loads of crap that we don’t actually need, and how should we define our own success?

These are big questions indeed — and it doesn’t even cover the terrible damage all these pointless consumer purchases have on the environment.

2021–01–02


‘Ender’s Game’

Please note: this post contains spoilers!

Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game is a classic bugs from outer space threaten humanity. In the story, children and young adults are trained in a special school to fight the ‘buggers’ using remote controlled spaceships (created created from captured alien technology). Young people are the only suitable candidates to pilot these remotely controlled ships (because adults have slower reaction times).

I read the book and watched the film back in summer of 2019, but I never got around to posting a review. I enjoyed both versions of the story, but I found the story (especially the novel) quite strange. It’s written in an analytical third person viewpoint, which is oddly engaging, even though it feels like it shouldn’t be. There are sections where Ender’s military commander and his colleague discuss Ender’s progress, which took me out of his story.

Even though Ender is a remarkably young protagonist, the story incorporates a lot of violence, which I wasn’t expecting. His elder brother, Peter, is a disturbing sociopath — a really creepy character. There’s a great deal about bullying and fighting bullies face on, which gets quite dark. At one point Ender has a brutal fight with a bully (the bully later dies, although Ender does not know about this). The fight is viewed by the school’s commander as a sign of Ender’s progress towards becoming a powerful leader.

One of the things about fiction is knowing what kind of a story you are in. I thought that I was in a thrilling action adventure but, as I later found out, the novel has dark undertones. The disparity between the two tonally different parts feels unsettling. The story has been interpreted as a metaphor for European colonialism and genocide in the Americas.

Ender is cajoled by his peers, manipulated by the school’s management and generally has a terrible experience. The theme of the story is about winning against the odds. The ultimate manipulation comes when the school tests him with a simulated battle that turns out to be a real war. In the battle, Ender completely destroys the ‘buggers’ home planet and thereby commits genocide.

I found the ending weird and unexpected, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Ender is a broken character in many ways, having wiped out the ‘buggers’, and his extremely unpleasant brother Peter has become an influential character on Earth (through his manipulative political writings). Without a common enemy the world has reverted to infighting and factional wars. Ender takes the only remaining ‘bugger’, a queen egg, to an uninhabited planet for the alien life-form to repopulate (in an act of atonement). It transpires that the ‘buggers’ didn’t realise that people were sentient life-forms and the war with the ‘buggers’ was a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, humanity goes on to colonise new planets and systems.

The 2013 film is a remarkably faithful and successful adaption that’s been produced with skill and respect for the source material. The acting and special effects are great. Tonally, it seems more cohesive.

In some ways, Ender can be understood as a ‘chosen one’ character (like Neo in The Matrix), a messiah-like character who is strong and virtuous.

Ender’s Game has been an influential young adult novel — the format of a character being tested (which is a very classical concept in origin). Other YA novels that use the same template include The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner. Ernest Cline’s Armada is pretty much a reworking (a loving homage, if you prefer) of Ender’s Game.

I did enjoy Ender’s Game (the novel and the film) — even if the ending is clearly set up for a sequel — but, ultimately, I couldn’t help thinking how dark the story is.

2021–01–01


‘The Puppet Masters’

I’m doing a mini-tour of 90s sci-fi horror, and now it’s the turn of 1994’s The Puppet Masters. It’s based on Robert A Heinlein’s 1951 novel (he also wrote Starship Troopers, which was satirised in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 adaptation).

The Puppet Masters is a straightforward bugs arrive on Earth and take over peoples’ minds story. It’s a typically 1950s sci-fi B-movie kind of plot. The presentation is slick enough and the narrative is mostly coherent, but the characters lack emotional depth. Donald Southerland’s character, ‘the old man’, plays like a Dad to his two key team members, his son Sam and fellow agent Mary.

The problem is that the script doesn’t allow any of the characters enough room to be interesting or to develop in any way. ‘The old man’ gets in the way of Sam and Mary having what could have been a classic buddy movie relationship. And there’s no conflict between Sam and his father. Sam might have been more interesting as the young upstart, doing things in a new way, but there’s none of that. From a story perspective, the whole Dad-in-charge thing feels silly and uncomfortably paternalistic.

The television series, the X-Files first aired the previous year, in 1993. The Puppet Masters feels quite X-Files-ish, but Sam and Mary lack the fun chemistry of Dana and Fox. Where the X-Files is stuffed full of mystery, there’s very little of it in The Puppet Masters. The alien parasite is shown early on (killing the menace of fighting an unknown entity) plus, it looks like a Dover Sole, which is to say, unthreatening and ridiculous.

The Puppet Masters is one of many 90s science fiction alien invasion films like Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), and while they were thrilling, scary, and comic The Puppet Masters never manages to be any of these. It feels like a straight to DVD film, which reflects its 26% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the problems originate from the by-the-numbers script that shoehorns too much in without allowing the characters time to develop, low budget action sequences, very little change in pace, and not much in the way of tonal atmosphere.

The finale is underwhelming. There’s a predictable reveal, and a convenient way to defeat the alien parasite, which makes the ending feel like it hasn’t been earned.

2021–01–01


‘The Faculty’

The Faculty is a time capsule from 1998. When, it seems, everything had to be a cross-genre teen-movie, set in a high school campus and featuring loads of comedy gags and bloody gore.

And yes The Faculty is a science fiction horror film… that’s set in a high school campus and it does feature comedy and gore. These teen and twenty-something films often had an obligatory 90s rock/pop/indie soundtrack. They were populated by pretty, disillusioned teenagers unable to ‘be themselves’, and fighting the bullshit and hypocrisy of the adult world. On TV there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in the cinemas there was Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Final Destination.

These teen movies, popcorn horrors, are self-aware mass entertainment. They play with existing genre tropes and cliches. They’re coming-of-age stories, gore fest movies, and stories about teenage identity and rebellion. The Faculty is completely at home in this milieu. It’s the kind of film that teenagers would have watched as part of a larger group on a Friday night outing. Rather than seeing the clichés as clichés, they would have understood them to be tongue-in-cheek quotes from popular culture.

The 90s teen horror was packed with shocks and sudden frights. They delighted in reversing fortunes, introducing plot wildcards, rapidly killing off the characters, and turning innocent situations, locations and characters into something bloody and menacing.

The Faculty incorporates every possible genre cliché — a parasitical alien life-form invades a high school, first taking over the faculty and then the students. A bunch of disgruntled kids, who previously hated one another, are forced to work together to defeat the alien being.

The film has been influenced by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Thing, The Breakfast Club, Cat People, Halloween, The Puppet Masters, and Stepford Wives. And, even though it’s at ease with itself for being the sum of its parts, has a star cast, and plenty of fast paced action, it never outgrows its lack of ambition to become genre defining.

2020–12–29


‘The Body Snatchers’, and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

The basic concept of The Body Snatchers has always fascinated me — alien facsimiles of humans that look and act like people, but aren’t human.

The idea of human copies not behaving in character to the original that they were cloned from, often lacking empathy and emotion, is a common science fiction trope. In The Thing an alien life-form mutates from one species to another, slowly learning how to successfully replicate itself. The human clone who isn’t like you and me has echoes of the enemy within and thought reform. It’s a metaphor for brainwashing, social peer pressure and the loss of individuality.

The human clones are unable to feel human emotion, rendering them into terrifying monsters. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster (who does feel emotional pain), these monsters believe that feelings are a human limitation.

Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, is set in a real American town and it’s written in the first person. The story happens through the eyes and experience of the protagonist. There’s a slightly gothic tone to the narrator’s voice. The 1956 adaptation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, feels like a metaphor for Communism and Cold War paranoia. The 1978 adaptation is more science fiction horror addressing issues around the creepiness of social conformity and retaining independent thought, but it can also be interpreted within a domestic US political context. It’s also a great example of a film with a shock ending.

Science fiction stories that feature aliens mimicking humans, virtual worlds, or stories that incorporate synthetic human-like characters, provoke audiences to ask, what does it mean to be human? They also present us with the fear of losing our humanity, and they pose questions about authenticity — real versus simulation. What is real?

The body snatcher stories are sometimes referred to as ‘paranoid conspiracy’ stories. They express powerful fears and anxieties about the uncanny, reality and illusion. They are also classic mystery stories, where the protagonist must uncover the truth. In the case of the 1978 film, the ‘pod people’ are metaphors for social programming and a widespread fear in the US of government duplicity in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

2020–12–28


‘The Expanse’

The Expanse is a hugely watchable, binge-worthy science fiction series. It offers plenty of action, world building, and exciting characters. It’s easy to see why the series has built up such an enthusiastic following.

The core characters are likeable, making you root for them and want to hang around to see how things work out. There are enough dangerous enemies to create satisfying conflicts.

The series doesn’t shy away from in-depth world building. A tremendous amount of thought has gone into the world that the characters inhabit, and the level of detail pays off. The technology always feels believable. It’s more Alien cargo ship than shiny Star Trek interior. The Belters even have their own accent, Jared Harris is particularly good as Anderson Dawes, and delivering his off-world spin on MLE (Multicultural London English).

The Expanse ticks a lot of addictive entertainment boxes. There’s mystery, and an overarching plot in the first two seasons and seven episodes that’s intriguing. A diverse cast of great actors, an intelligent script, and strong female characters.

The first two seasons are addictive viewing, but in-spite of this the show was cancelled. When it was picked up again, after episode seven of season three it falls off a cliff edge. The main story arc gets to a place where the narrative feels like it’s reached a point of completion. The rest of season three hangs around to become an extended denouement. The future of the series was in question and under severe budgetary constraints, hence there’s an over reliance on characters talking in rooms.

A new mystery is introduced, or rather it’s an extension of the mystery introduced in the first two seasons. The fourth season didn’t feel quite right to me and it suffers from introducing a sub-plot that didn’t feel important enough, and too many new characters that I didn’t care about. It’s something of a misfire, but once again it’s probably been hobbled by a reduced budget. Season five was a partial return to form, but it didn’t quite pull through for me.

2020–12–27


‘The Midnight Sky’

This post contains spoilers for The Midnight Sky and Mr Robot.


The Midnight Sky is something of a mixed offering. In it, there are two parallel stories that don’t quite merge together.

In one, an old scientist contemplates his life at the end of the world. He finds a girl at the polar research station where he was alone and takes her to the relative safety that lies further north. But the girl is not real. She only exists in his imagination. So it’s a bit like The Road with an imaginary child to look after. If there’s one trope in contemporary storytelling that really irritates me it’s when a character interacts with an imaginary character. It’s the contemporary equivalent to the conversation with a ghost. It is even worse when much of a main character’s journey revolves around this trick (such as Mr Robot).

The other story involves a spaceship that’s returning from its cosmic exploration with news that it has discovered a planet that can sustain human life. The problem is, the earth that they they are returning to is about to become a radioactive wilderness (presumably after a Nuclear conflict). And, it just happens that a pregnant woman in this returning spaceship is revealed to be the old man’s (real, non-imagined) daughter.

The old man starts off by consuming a lot of whisky and then he imagines that he’s accompanied by his child-aged daughter. He leaves the research station and moves further north, to move away from the spreading radioactivity. The most dramatic situation in the film is when he sleeps over in a container when the ice it’s on melts and the container sinks into the ocean, and he narrowly escapes. The rest of the film it mostly people talking in rooms, often over they air.

As a slow, low-key film about global human folly, and one man’s attempt to retain his humanity, the story is fine. But for anything more, it fails to straddle the line from morose to life-affirming. The problem is that the old man doesn’t feel like he has a real problem to fix, and having conversations with an imaginary girl only exacerbates his solipsism.

With most of the globe covered in radiation, life on Earth is pretty much over. Can he solve this? No.

Even though he manages to help out his daughter (she’s in a spacecraft orbiting Earth) plan her return journey to a habitable planet, she seems smart enough to work this out for herself. Presumably there are colonists on the inhabitable planet, so humanity will survive. The problem is that we haven’t met any of them, so it’s like an abstract concept. The result is a story that doesn’t feel very particularly satisfying.

How could it have been more satisfying? If the old man had solved a big problem, for example, if the imaginary girl was real he could have arranged for a rescue craft to come down to Earth and pick her up, to be able to take her to the inhabitable planet.

On the plus side there’s a fair amount of decent special effects, from the old man falling into the icy polar water at night to the orbiting spaceship and its crew encountering meteorite storms. And the old man is wearing a very nice check shirt.

2020–12–26


‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’

Based on the book of the same name by Thomas Piketty, the documentary film, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, takes a whistle stop tour of inequalities in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries in an attempt to figure out the implications for the 21st Century.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed Capitalism to run amok, no longer needing to maintain any notion of moral supremacy, this has led to the rise of a new aristocracy or super rich class and the demise of the Middle Class. Society is returning to the old model of the Middle Classes being almost as poor as the Working Class.

The use of interesting film footage combined with cleverly chosen background music and interview soundbites keeps the argument moving. And while it might not really say anything particularly new, it does combine a number of ideas into a single argument.

In the 18th Century, the average life expectancy was 17 years. The aristocracy maintained a system with the dice loaded in their favour. There was little social mobility. The rich married the rich. Pride and Prejudice was a romantic fantasy — in 1813, the chance of a wealthy man marrying a woman without money was extremely slim. Money married money. For a contemporary Western audience marrying for love seems entirely normal, but for a reader in 1813 it was as incredible as winning the lottery.

The post-World War Two West saw the idea of the benefits society in the UK and rise of Middle Class wealth in the US. This hit the rocks in the 1970s. Globalisation has seen business and industries taken offshore, new technologies often require less workers, and nation states are struggling to maintain their public services (because the large corporations have become so adept at tax evasion).

As living standards fall, people lash out against their nearest enemy, they return to identity, gender, and ethnicity politics. The result is a greater social divide — polarisation. The documentary notes that shared wealth depends on the wider control of capital, and urges the taxation of inheritance in order to avoid returning to the model of the old aristocracy. If this does not occur, it argues, we will end up with ‘unequally distributed abundance’. Without some form of a ‘new deal’, it will be impossible to maintain a harmonious society.

The documentary points out the psychology of power, as observed in social experiments. In these experiments (playing Monopoly) players who won by pure chance believed that they had earned their position through their own skill and strategy. The more power the ultra rich (the 1%) gain by inheritance, the more they feel that they they have done something to deserve it, and the less empathy they feel towards poor people.

These observations pose some big questions. How do Liberal democracies change if they lack the will, or the leadership? How, in a culture of individual freedoms do you build a sense of collective responsibility? The documentary argues that failure to crack these questions will lead to a revolution.

Failing systems are unable to reform themselves. Often, the things that make a system successful also end up making it fail. One thing that Capital in the Twenty-First Century omits when it comes to speculating about the future, is the unknown. Unknown variables create new and unexpected scenarios. They change the context and implications of existing variables in ways that we’re unable to comprehend from the present day.

2020–12–26


‘New In Town’

New in Town (2009) is a Christmas film, best enjoyed with a slab of stilton and a glass of port from a bottle that will probably still be around in a cupboard somewhere this time next year. New in Town is cheesy, schmaltzy, and entirely formulaic — and that’s why I like it. We all need some ‘crap entertainment’ to cheer us up, especially in 2020.

The story manages to pack in every rom-com cliché and include all the Christmas film tropes possible. She’s a city girl (Renee Zellweger), an arrogant, impatient, selfish, self-obsessed, image conscious, judgemental, and ambitious executive who’s desperate to climb the corporate ladder. He’s (Harry Connick Jr) a laid back, chilled out, easy going, union leader, country boy, who is always ready to help others.

She’s come to shut down the local factory where he’s the union boss and, of course, they immediately hate one another, and then, of course, when they’re forced to spend time together they slowly realise the better qualities of one another… and they become attracted to one another.

These rom-com-holiday films often have a city versus country (or small town) conflict. It’s exactly the same kind of thing that features in films like, Groundhog Day, and Doc Hollywood).

The selfish, hard edged city character slowly begins to adapt to the slower small town lifestyle, and begins to realise that there’s more to life than greed and selfishness. The locals, initially seen as backward, country bumpkins, are revealed to be kind and generous and have something that the city character lacks — belonging to a community.

They get together in the end, of course. And the city character discovers that he or she wants to stay in the small town and make it their home… of course.

The spirit of the Christmas film is about going through an experience that provides a revelatory new way of seeing the world. The Scrooge-like city character embraces change and learns to be a less selfish, kinder, and a more generous person.

2020–12–18


‘Imperial Twilight’

Stephen R Platt’s non-fiction book, Imperial Twilight, chronicles the arrival of British traders on the Chinese coast. It also presents an account of Imperial China’s decline and the Opium War (1839–1842).

It took a long time for British traders to win unfettered access to the Chinese market. The Chinese managed to control trade with foreigners, who were forbidden from learning the Chinese language and were only permitted to live in small trading posts called ‘factories’, where women were not allowed. And they were only permitted to trade with a select and pre-approved group of merchants.

Platt paints a detailed picture of Imperial China, which was wealthy and highly civilised, but constantly struggling with peasant rebellions. The Communist Revolution should not have been a surprise, it was a hundred years in the making. These sporadic uprisings became a financial burden on the state, forcing it to raise armies in order to maintain control.

Imperial China was also burdened with massive corruption that made it almost impossible to govern effectively. One of the ongoing problems facing the Emperor was how to reform a corrupt system with duplicitous officials who sent back bogus reports about success and reform when none was taking place, and where officials at every level were on-the-take.

During this time the British and other foreign nations were desperately trying to gain free access to the Chinese market, but they did not realise that the Chinese had historically used its economy to impose its own will. It was viewed as a weapon.

Also fascinating is the whole Opium War saga. While most people deplore the notion of pushing drugs today, Opium was legal in Britain at that time and it was not considered socially harmful, in the way it is now. Having said this, the British were divided about the Opium trade and the political fights in parliament make the Brexit debate look like nothing. It’s sobering to think that the British have always had a pugnacious public debate about political matters.

It’s slightly weird how notions about ‘free trade’ were so visceral and ideological. And it was free trade in the most literal sense. There was also the issue of dealing with the East India Company which was almost a nation state in itself — it had its own army.

Platt highlights the British government’s inability to reign in the traders who were operating out of India, either through fear, incompetence, inability, or lack of will. There was also a bizarre situation where the British government was dependent on tea taxation, and the Chinese state was dependent on the money it received from selling tea to Britain. The whole situation seems ridiculous now.

Along the way, the Chinese made some huge miscalculations. They had a patronising view about Europeans and their technology, and they completely failed to understand how powerful the Royal Navy had become. So, when things started to go wrong in the relationship between the Chinese and the British traders, and by consequence Britain, they had no answer to gunboat diplomacy.

The truth about Imperial China’s decline is that, like all empires, although they may face numerous external threats, they all tend to fall apart from within. At some point there’s no longer a willingness to maintain an empire, complacency sets in, and they implode — the upkeep doesn’t seem worth it. This happened to the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and to the Soviet Union.

In China’s case, no one was able to reform its chronic corruption. This led to organisational ossification, which exacerbated its ability to change. This was followed a series of bad deals made with foreign powers. The colonial era Hong Kong was all about the British finally being able to dictate what they had wanted all along, free market access. They also gained a naval port for the Royal Navy in the Far East.

The culmination of China’s internal collapse ended with foreign powers taking advantage of its weakness, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and China, and the Chinese civil war. While, it’s not covered by the book, in contrast, you only have to look at how deftly the Japanese were able to handle foreign trade and to adapt as a nation, while also retaining their culture and identity.

Once again, China’s more recent success has been through the partial liberalisation of business and trade with the West. And, once again China, as it has always done, it’s beginning to leverage its industrial and trade capacity as a political weapon, the same tactic used by the Imperial Chinese state. This is a trick that every empire employs, from the ancient world, to the British Empire and to post WW2 US hegemony.

In the future, we can only wonder how China’s economic success will play out. Will it continue to be a runaway success? Will it stall, or implode? Will it take on the same self-important, arrogance and imperialism that took hold of the European nations and Japan after they became industrially dominant?

In this fascinating account Imperial Twilight illustrates the dangers inherent in any system that’s unable to change. There’s nothing like too much success to breed complacency, and eventually, failure.

2020–12–18


‘Tenet’

When I started watching this I thought: really are you kidding me? This is total bollocks.

Like all Christopher Nolan films it’s a story that revolves around time, and time operates within a spacial construct, so it’s about time and space. To be honest, I have no idea what’s going on. There’s something about the future… reverse entropy, and being able to change the present by going backwards through time. This is hokum. Or is it bunkum? It doesn’t really matter, because it’s a high concept MacGuffin.

Like Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s time concepts are quite arty, in an art school kind of way, reminding me of the 1930s heyday of Bergson influenced Cubism, which was all about experiences of time and space. Nolan is a sort of cinematic Cubist. If there can be multiple viewpoints of time and space in a single painting, surely there can be reverse entropy in a film?

Unfortunately, in the same way that Cubism became a style and an aesthetic spectacle, Tenet feels much the same. I didn’t find the concept convincing and whenever the actors attempted to explain what was going on, it felt ridiculous. I could see lines of dialogue on a page instead of the people speaking. It was Dialogue with a capital D. Suddenly, Looper felt like the most intelligent time-travel movie ever made.

One of the unspoken contracts between a film and an audience is the suspension of disbelief. So let’s suspend our disbelief and call this some form of near-magical technology or time travel and get on with the film.

If Interstellar is about ‘time’ literally in space, Tenet is about ‘time’ within a homage to the spy story. I was thinking of zany 1960s spy movies like Charade, Topaz, and The Man From Uncle. Those international spy genre capers were all about glamorous travel, fun, attractive leading characters, pretty locations, and silly romantic flirtation. A sort of action film that comes across as an advert for consumer Capitalism. Sadly, Tenet does not have any of that sense of fun. It is also part James Bond and The Bourne Identity, so there’s a strange mix of things going on that’s not easy to decipher.

If the high concept time-MacGuffin is totally befuddling, so is the music. It’s so loud and invasive during the action sequences. WE REALLY NEED TO GET SOME THUMPING MUSIC IN HERE TO SHOW HOW ACTION PACKED THIS FILM IS. I’m thinking ‘oh man’ not another techno-trance-EDM blaster that doesn’t seem to mesh with what I’m watching. It feels overblown and incongruous. I am disappointed there was no backwards music going on (although I read somewhere that the music was designed to play the same, forwards and backwards).

So, having shrugged off the meta-concept-time-metaphor-reality-paradox-inversion and the intrusive, loud soundtrack, I just sat back and thought ‘fuck it’, turned the sound down a couple of bars and took in the view. And the view is definitely what Tenet is about, because this is a good looking film. You might call it a visual feast. There’s the glam scenery (although it is also going for gritty), the backwards gimmicks and tricks, really great colour grading, and Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki looking like a couple of models out on a fashion shoot. Great production values all around (apart from the weird sound mixing).

Like Tenet, Interstellar also had some mind-bending physics, but at least that came towards the end. I let that go because I was kept involved by the father and daughter dynamics (plus the amazing visuals, cool robots, and a great performance by Matthew McConaughey). There were no emotional relationships to lock me into Tenet and the whole thing felt quite clinical, as if its humanity had been disinfected away. I suppose you could use the phrase ‘too slick for its own good’.

I thought Kenneth Branough was fine as the Russian-baddie. The script could have made his character more terrifying, to increase the threat level to the other characters. The problem for me was that I didn’t like any of the characters and the interactions between them felt slightly wooden and cold. A technical marvel with no soul. So big and widescreen and convoluted that there was no space for those small emotional connections. Is this a knock-on effect of shooting in IMAX with complex special effects?

Tenet is a weird cocktail with amazing ingredients, but conflicting flavours. I wasn’t sure what I was tasting, or if I liked the drink.

2020–12–17


‘James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father’

This is a charming ‘Kindle Single’ by Len Deighton, where he discusses his lunchtime encounters with Ian Fleming, the novel writing process, writing screenplays (the gap between the audience and what the protagonist knows), film production, artistic credit, creative rivalries, ownership of rights… and Kevin McClory.

Kevin McClory provided significant attributes to the James Bond concept. This was something that Ian Fleming made use of, although there was always a difference between the novels and the films. Ian Fleming also used Sean Connery’s portrayal of Bond to give James Bond his Scottish ancestry. James Bond came into being through multiple creative processes that were often in conflict with one another.

2020–12–16


‘American War’

There’s a fair amount of literary science fiction going around at the moment, and Omar El Akkad’s American War is one of the better novels. It conjures up a future America that’s recovering from a polarising second civil war.

The handling of the story is convincing and believable. It uses personal stories to explore the emotions and ideas on both sides of a dystopian future. And it doesn’t shy away from detailing that future through the novel’s world building process. This is commendable, I think, because it’s often where literary science fiction novels tend to play it safe (for example The Wall and Doggerland). Speculating about the future is always a gamble, but it’s part of why we are reading these novels in the first place.

In this dusty future, the post second civil war America has entered into a major role reversal where it’s become a failed state and foreign nations are sending it charitable aid. The nation’s energy and capacity to improve the lives of its citizens has been diminished by its lack of unity and the meddling of overseas powers who are keen to keep America down. Among these enemies is a Middle Eastern empire that can’t help tinkering with internal US politics, all in the name of altruism.

Central to the novel is a core irony, and a warning — you don’t want your grandchildren to live in this version of America. Omar El Akkad does a great job of avoiding cliché, keeping things nuanced and realistically messy, and not preaching.

2020–12–16


‘Doggerland’

Doggerland is a literary science fiction novel by Ben Smith. It takes place in a future where the oceans have risen and the two main characters (one older, one younger), do their best to maintain an offshore wind farm.

The older one keeps his head down and consumes home-brewed alcohol to numb the knowledge of his insignificance to the soulless corporation that owns the wind farm — and what seems like a desperate and pitiless world on what remains of the land. There’s a strong sense of things slowly falling apart, and a lack of resources.

The younger one is still curious about the world, and what lies beyond the wind farm. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of life, which the older one is eager to forget.

The novel is really focused on tone. There’s not much to go on in terms of the characters, an involved plot, or world building outside of the wind farm. This deliberate limitation reduces the scope in some ways, but it also simplifies the story, freeing it up to take on a parable-like quality.

I saw Doggerland as being a retelling of Waiting for Godot rather than The Road. There’s a palpable sense of time going slowly, the sky and the sea, of waiting and momentarily glimpsing the existence of some other reality beyond the present moment, a place blurred between actuality and myth, lives lived and archaeology.

2020–12–13


‘Simulacron-3’

Daniel F Galouye’s 1964 science fiction novel, Simulacron-3, is considered to be one of the earliest examples of fiction that describes a virtual world (in the way that we would understand it today, a computer rendered, digital simulation).

The novel’s been adapted into World on a Wire (a 1973, German, two part mini-TV-series), and The Thirteenth Floor (which came out in 1999, the same year as The Matrix). Today the idea of ‘conscious’ characters living within an artificially rendered environment is mainstream, commonplace even, and, depending on how it’s used, you might even call it a cliché.

Virtual reality is a modern reuse of the dream scenario that’s been used in storytelling since ancient times. Like dreams, virtual reality is often used as a framed story, a story within a story. The virtual world is also a journey into another world, one where the other world, reality, is strange and unknown, and the familiar is a deceptive facade.

I really wanted to like this novel, it’s intelligently written, but there was something about it that feels emotionally unapproachable. It’s a slow burner of a story that takes its time to get to the revelation.

The love affair was predictable, as if had been constructed to satisfy the plot’s final outcome. Similarly, the protagonist felt like he’d been saved, instead of having solved the story problem for himself, which I found frustrating. The novel is subtle and thoughtful, demonstrating the philosophical implications of virtual reality but, perhaps deliberately, it lacks a sufficient sense of being inhabited by living, breathing, human warmth.

2020–12–13


‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’

Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science novel. It starts off with an interaction between two people in the desert and it grows in scale from that encounter.

Walter M Miller was involved in the Battle of Monte Casino, in Italy, during the Second World War. Miller is on record as having said that his wartime experience in Italy inspired the story. Although it’s a post-apocalyptic story, this is really a novel about human resilience. It concedes that humanity will inevitably carry out irresponsible and foolishly destructive actions but, after such catastrophes, there will be cultural rebirth and social growth.

It’s also a Cold War novel about warmongering and the threat of nuclear devastation. And it’s a strangely timeless novel. Although it was published in 1959, but it could have been written in 1929 or 2009. The monastic order that it depicts feels more like historical fiction than science fiction.

I tend to favour fiction that centres around a central hero, who is able to solve his or her challenge (while also maintaining their essential goodness) within a character journey that coincides with the story arc. Without giving too much away, this isn’t how the narrative of A Canticle for Leibowitz unfolds, which is what gives the novel its ambitious, monumental scale. If like me, you prefer a novel that follows a central hero who is able to solve the story problem, then the novel might become a struggle. If this is not the case, you might find it both surprising and thought provoking.

2020–12–13


‘The Lighthouse’

This is a gloriously bonkers film directed by Robert Eggers. It’s almost like a metaphor for the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are incredible.

The story is basically two lighthouse keepers going crazy while living on an isolated island and maintaining the lighthouse lamp. The lamp takes on a weird, almost paranormal, omnipotence.

There’s humour, magic, great dialogue, and plenty of surreal strangeness. If this wasn’t enough there’s also tenderness, treachery and paranoia.

2020–12–09


‘Ready Player Two’

Sometimes the more you wait in anticipation for a movie sequel, or a follow-up novel, the more it fails to meet your soaring expectations. Then you get annoyed with yourself for being suckered into feeling that way.

I was really looking forward to Ready Player Two — why wouldn’t I be? Ready Player One was clever, playful and funny. I was eager to re-experience the highs of the first novel.

With a smash hit on his hands and what felt like a thoroughly complete and satisfying story, I was curious where Ernest Cline would take Ready Player Two. It seemed inevitable that the characters would have to lose everything they’d gained at the end of the first book and be dispatched on another quest. But, when we meet Wade Watts in Ready Player Two he’s the world famous owner of the Oasis, rich beyond belief, and arguably one of the most powerful people in the world. For me, this really messed up the whole tone of the novel. The highly likeable character of Ready Player One is suddenly hard to empathise with. There’s no struggle. In fact, I didn’t really like any of the main characters. This misstep, re-jigs everything else onto the wrong foot. Ernest Cline even jokes about this, saying that Wade is basically perceived by most of the players in the Oasis as a rich kid douchebag.

Where the pop culture references of Ready Player One were funny, and fitted seamlessly into the quest, in Ready Player Two they fall flat, like they’ve been shoehorned into the plot for the sake of making yet another pop-culture / nerd-culture reference. In a weird way, Ready Player Two feels almost like the author writing about his own success.

I can explain the story in about three sentences. And, if you push me, I can explain it in one sentence. Ready Player Two is clearly that second rock album that somehow didn’t quite work. It’s the novel that takes us to what will inevitably be Ready Player Three. It even feels like some of the storyline has been created to suit the actors who played the characters in the film.

Will Wheaton did an amazing job reading the audiobook of Ready Player One, but even he can’t save Ready Player Two. Is it awful? No, of course not. It’s a decently written book — it’s just that there are so many things about it that I found odd, slightly clunky, jarring, and in a few cases, downright irksome.

2020–12–09


‘1984’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is a classic science fiction dystopia. It’s a novel written by a socialist about socialism that’s gone insane. When I first read it (a long time ago now), it didn’t make much of an impact on me. I actually thought that it was boring.

It’s a literary science fiction novel and it reads like one, which is to say there are some great lines in it, but it’s definitely not an action-based genre story. It’s more of a slow-burning psychological and political, character based story.

I tried to re-read 1984 a couple of years ago. Once again, I found it tough to get into, and I gave up. A ‘classic’ it is, but the pace is slow and entire sections don’t feel like they are coming from the story but they’re the author speaking. I just don’t really like George Orwell as a writer. I have the same problem with Philip K Dick, who is a science fiction god — but I’ve never really enjoyed reading his novels. The similarities between Orwell and Dick are that they are amazing ideas people, but the fun reading experience just isn’t there for me.

Recently, I felt a need to ‘read’ 1984 again, because it’s such an important book. This time I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Andrew Wincott. He really brought it to life for me. It’s a wonderful performance. Finally, I’ve found a way to enjoy this novel.

1984 has become a defining document of the Cold War era, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The problem is that its success has turned the fictional scenario of a near future, repressive police state into a complete science fiction cliché.

For a contemporary audience, the storytelling cliché of the repressive police state might be less interesting than newspeak and fake news. Orwell understood the strangeness of language, how it lends itself to manipulation and propaganda. If Wittgenstein realised that the limitations of language made it impossible to attain any genuine philosophical truth, Orwell saw it the other way around — the limitations of language made it a useful political weapon to alter notions of what is and isn’t real.

Today, language is at the front line of political debate. You either have ‘correct thoughts’ or you don’t. You are a believer or a heretic. The concept of ‘right thinking’ originated from the Nazis. ‘Right thinking’ is deliberately about denying a nuanced debate. You are either ‘right’ or you are ‘wrong’ — us versus them. Everything is polarised. In 1984, the mass gatherings where people express their public hatred for alleged traitors and enemy nations is the ultimate expression of this process.

The ‘Ingsoc’ or English Socialism of 1984 is an authoritarian, Marxist, cult of personality. It has a lot in common with old fashioned puritanical religion. It demands ideological purity, in much the same way as any totalitarian religion where ‘the thought is the deed’. Religion invented thought crime long before Orwell and 1984. With ‘Ingsoc’, the party’s inner circle are the new priests. Like any religion, Winston must go beyond mere acceptance of Big Brother. He must ‘love’ Big Brother, because religions need true believers.

Ultimately, authoritarian power is not about the ‘truth’, it’s about winning. The end is power, and the means to the end is power.

While I was back in 1984-land, I re-watched the film of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve never seen a film with so much texture, and this isn’t some kind of literary metaphor. I mean it literally, I’ve never seen a film with so much physical texture. It’s as if the film has been been put through a texturising machine. Everything in it is scratched, crackled, dirty, mottled, spattered, dusty, worn, and cracked. The performances of John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, and Richard Burton are decent enough, although Richard Burton feels like he’s ‘phoning it in’. The 1980s synth soundtrack hasn’t aged well and it’s intrusive.

Maybe the problem with Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it follows the book too closely? One of the challenges of adapting any big ideas book into a film is how to translate those ideas into something that’s visually emotive, without being trite. With Blade Runner, for example, I’m not even sure if Ridley Scott actually read Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Blade Runner was inspired by the novel, but it’s really based on the film-script and Ridley Scott’s vision.

2020–12–09


‘Raised by Wolves’

This was one of those TV series that I sort of knew I was going to like, before I even watched it. It’s Ridley Scott directing the first two episodes, and they’re remarkable, pure storytelling mastery.

There’s a lot to like here, the visual look of the series, intriguing ideas, great special effects, world building, really impressive performances by all the actors. On the slight downside for me, it veered from science fiction into fantasy towards the end, and the promise of one plot outcome was nullified and turned into something else, which as shocking as it was, still felt like the original promise might have been more intriguing. There’s a little too much in the way of the horror trope ‘ghost’ character and mysterious inner voices for my liking, which we’ve seen before in Lost and the Battlestar Galactica reboot. These few downsides are easily forgiven. What will season two bring?

2020–12–07


The blog is dead, long live the blog

So my last blog post was back in July, which is six months ago now. Instead of blogging, I’ve been working on a novel, which is now finished.

In a way, I’ve missed blogging, but I have also enjoyed not blogging. Blogging is a great way to work things out in your head, while the minimalist in me figures that not having to blog is a positive simplification in itself.

I can split the blog up into three distinct phases, pre-MA (2016–2017), MA (2018–2019), and post-MA (to July 2020). And now I’m thinking about doing some blogging again, I don’t want to revert to the kind of blog posts that I was writing before. They were ‘I’m figuring this out as I’m writing it’ kind of posts. I’ve done enough figuring out and I’m kinda bored of it.

I like the practice of writing blog posts, but I want the process to be fun, not some kind of an intellectual struggle. So, I’m going to mostly write about things that I’m reading and watching. Where I used to try hard to provide an objective analysis of those things, I’m going to go in the other direction and be completely subjective. I’ll be writing as a fan of the books, films, and TV series.

Also, I want to rate the stuff I’m writing about, so I’ve had some thoughts about the rating systems that I could use. I thought about a star rating between one to five stars and I’ve decided that it would be a tad formal. So, I’m using my own bespoke system instead, and it goes like this:

Brilliant

Interesting

Disappointing

Not for me


I’ll put this one down as an experiment, and see how it goes.

2020–12–07


Characters and organisations

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between main characters in fiction and organisations (local government, corporations, institutions, national government, the nation state).

Like real people, characters exist within organisations. They work in them. Their lives are impacted by them.

Characters and organisations go through different stages. A lifecycle. Youth. Adulthood. Old age.

Where do interesting stories place characters in context to an organisation?

How does the organisation (as expressed through its status quo) perceive the character?

At what stage is the character?

At what stage is the organisation?

An organisation can be the main character’s antagonist.

An organisation can be their ally.

To increase the drama the main character has to completely identify with the organisation or completely identify as its opponent. (And maybe have a reversal of belief as the story progresses.)

When they are opposites they can offer heightened drama.

Stories are about change. (Or an inability to change.)

What is the dynamic for change between the main character and the organisation?

What happens when an energetic young mind enters an ossified organisation that cannot change?

Where is the character in relation to the status quo?

Where is the character and the organisation in relation to the truth?

Contrasting qualities are more interesting.

2020–07–15


‘Talking to Strangers’

I was impressed with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It’s a fascinating read. It presents so many intriguing ideas. It’s always compelling and coherent.

Based on Outliers, I took a chance and bought the audiobook version of Talking to Strangers. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting. It couldn’t be as good as Outliers? Could it?

Talking to Strangers pieces together some established ideas in seemingly unconnected real life stories. It merges them together in a surprising conclusion. Talking to Strangers was conceived as an audiobook from the outset. The quotes and interviews are mostly recordings of the original person speaking.

The story is about unconscious bias. And the implications on how it affects our lives.

2020–07–10


‘Vivarium’

This is a weird film. I used to find weird films more compelling when I was younger. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but I prefer things to make more sense now. By ‘sense’ I mean comply to basic storytelling principles.

Many things in life are perplexing and imponderable. You don’t need to discover the Buddha to realise this.

Some stories celebrate the weirdness and chaos of life in a metaphorical or symbolic way. Essentially, the story represents something. An emotion. Angst. An observation.

Vivarium is set in a bizarre science fiction world, but it’s really about real life. About powerlessness. It’s about being a cog in some else’s machine.

For a film with a comparatively modest budget it does a great job creating this surreal nightmare world. The acting performances are excellent throughout.

The world it creates is an awake-nightmare. It evokes the oddness of the enclosed town in The Truman Show. The darkness of Eraserhead and Dark City.

The story was well handled and delivered without cliché or schmaltz. But, for me, it could have done with some optimism. Especially when watching it at the tail end of a world pandemic.

2020–07–07


Trinkets

The European settlers famously ‘bought’ Manhattan island from the Native American Indians for some glass breads. It’s often referred to as an example of a great business deal. Selling something of negligible value for something of great value. (It’s been pointed out that the Native American Indians didn’t really understand the implication of the transaction. They didn’t have the same concept of ownership as the Europeans.)

The transaction was a ‘good deal’ for one side. A ‘con’ for the other.

For the storyteller, the glass beads are trinkets. Shiny objects that Magpie’s are attracted to. And, stories need Magpies.

Fictional characters often go in search of trinkets. These can be actual objects in the real world or virtual trinkets that only exist in a character’s mind.

The quest for the trinket is a kind of pointless quest. For a character in a fictional story it appears as:

Trinkets are desires, illusions, bogus dreams that promise completeness.

Anyone who’s lived a little has sought a trinket or two — writers and readers. It’s something an audience will understand. The trinket story is a certain kind of story. A character getting the runaround. A tragedy. Or a comedy.

2020–07–05


‘Timeline’

Timeline is a 2003 film based on Michael Crichton’s 1999 novel of the same name. This big budget film was a box office failure. It has the honour of having a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 11%.

In my search for truly bad films, this could well be one of the worst. My fascination with cinematic turkeys is figuring out the process that lead to them being so bad. No one sets out to create a turkey. Usually, it’s a perfect combination of a number of things.

Sometimes, a film flops because the script is terrible. Or because it doesn’t find an audience. Maybe it’s misunderstood or it’s ahead of its time. Or the film cashes in on a formulae that was created a decade, and now seems stale.

With Timeline, there’s so much that’s wrong. It starts with the script — the plot and dialogue. The whole thing feels laboured. What should have been an intriguing and mysterious opening is skipped over. It could have created atmosphere and been used to explore the characters. Instead, in a desperate rush to get to the action, we have a sub-Stargate time portal and various action scenes shoehorned into a plot. But, without the satisfying setup it all seems pointless.

2020–07–05


‘The Persuader’ and ‘The Affair’

I’ve finished all of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher first person novels. After Killing Floor, The Persuader, and The Affair are my second and third favourites.

Novels are so personal and subjective. Readers like different things. Readers expect different things. Some people want action. Others prefer mystery, tone and psychology.

The Persuader is what I’d call as classic Jack Reacher story. It starts with an introductory action set piece. Then it goes into mystery mode. (In this case it’s very Hitchcockian.) Finally, it turns into an action thriller.

I think in some ways the best thing about these kind of novels is the build-up, the scene setting at the beginning. When it works, it creates a fascinating world. We get to know intriguing characters and environments. It’s immersive.

The Reacher novels that work for me pull off this aspect of the storytelling brilliantly. The ones that don’t, they feel like exposition. They are a series of disparate plot points. Scenes feel like fictional constructs rather than natural events.

In The Persuader Reacher is sent on a mission. He is sent into the ‘dragon’s layer’. It’s a different vibe to Killing Floor where the problem finds him. But this also works. The baddies are carrying out their work in plain sight. Things are not what they seem. At least we can be sure that Reacher will find out what is going on.

In the The Affair, Jack Reacher is also sent on a mission. To investigate a murder in a small town. The story takes place in the past. It’s a younger Reacher. Again, it’s really the setup that makes the story. In this story Reacher teams up with a local cop who’s ex-military. It’s a buddy story as well as a romance. It’s a bit cheesy in places, perhaps deliberately so.

These two novels show that a good set-up builds the tone and immerses the reader in the story.

2020–07–05


‘Land of the Dead’

Capitalism has destroyed the world. All that’s left are zombies, a single tower-block populated by a tiny elite, and a surrounding shanty town where the population distracts itself with barbaric entertainment.

And now the zombies are getting smarter. Learning to act together. Planning a coordinated attack.

George A Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005) is a satirical zombie action horror flick. There’s a slightly uneasy relationship between its political critique of George W Bush‘s USA versus Hollywood action movie cliche.

The film was released almost in the middle of George W Bush‘s two terms as US president. The zombie hoard is a frightening antagonist, on a par with the corrupt elite led by the baddie, Paul Kaufman. His instinct, when the city falls into collapse, is to pack a bag stuffed full with money. As if that will save him.

The title alludes to America. It suggests a political system where the people, and democracy is itself the land of the dead. It is a system that’s unable to change. Unable to see its errors.

Luckily the satirical element isn’t too heavy handed. It doesn’t get in the way of the action and humour. But, coming in 2005, Land of the Dead is overshadowed by 28 Days Later (2002) and 2004’s remake of George A Romero’s 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead.

Land of the Dead was a crowd pleasing, box office success. A fusion of political comment, action, comedy, and gore. The tell-tale sign of it’s ridiculousness though is the silly, missile-launching battle bus that looks like a pimped-up RV. (It’s like something out of Damnation Alley.) The end result is a film that is fun but undistinguished, and difficult to take too seriously.

2020–07–05


‘Honey Boy’

Honey Boy (2019) is a low budget character-based story. It’s what used to be called an ‘indie movie’, produced outside of the Hollywood studio system. These kinds of films follow he tropes of literary fiction and artistic expression (the protagonist’s experience rather than a plot-driven narrative).

In this case, Honey Boy was released by Amazon Studios. So, while it’s technically outside the Hollywood studio system it’s the product of a large corporation. The film had a limited release in cinemas. It’s ultimately destined to end up on Amazon Prime Video. It cost $3.5 million to produce and it recouped $3.3 million at the box office. This is before DVD and streaming sales, plus the ‘cost’ of buying it for Prime Video. So, I’m guessing although it wasn’t a runaway success financially, on Amazon’s terms it is a successful film. And, speaking as a viewer, the films feels like a lot of bang for the buck.

The problem with Honey Boy is that it flits between two stories. I came away without feeling like either of the stories had been satisfactorily explored or resolved.

The unlikable father is a problematic figure. But we never experience the drama that formed him. The real story about him has occurred outside of the film. For him, this is the aftermath.

The boy’s story feels like the moment before his real story. The most dramatic part of his story also feels like it occurs outside of the film’s scope. Because of this, neither character’s story feels satisfying. And a third character, the boy’s mother, doesn’t even feature in the film (except, briefly, in a phone call — and then we don’t even see her).

The desire for realism, to recapture what happened, as a story of self-therapy, an autobiography — cathartic fiction — in films like Honey Boy, and The Souvenir (2019) can hinder the sense of fictional drama.

I get why.

Honey Boy is an autobiographical story. But it’s worth noting that, many writers, especially when they’re starting off (including myself), are held back by a desire for autobiographical verisimilitude. It can get in the way of telling a fictional story. Ironically, a more authentic story (in terms of the writer’s own self-reference) can be less satisfying for a reader or audience.

2020–07–05


Empire, racism, the slave trade, and statues

Statue of Edward Colston, 1895. Thrown into Bristol harbour on 7 June 2020. The plaque reads, ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city. AD 1895’.


Warning: this post contains descriptions of torture.


The British are in denial about the British Empire.

The British Empire didn’t invent slavery, but it did become deeply immeshed in the Atlantic slave trade. Today the emphasis is placed on its role in ‘abolishing’ the slave trade. And that was a good thing. Later on, the British Empire did put considerable resources into stopping it. But, at the same time it airbrushed its own involvement with the slave trade from history. (The cynical might say that once the Americas became independent cutting off the slave trade was a way of containing their rising power.) The generally agreed consensus is that the transatlantic slave trade killed about 14 million people (some estimates are much higher).

There are many troubling parallels between the British Empire and German National Socialism in the 1930s and 40s. The Nazis always made it clear that they admired the British Empire. They wanted to achieve a British Empire of their own.

The racial parallels between Empire and National Socialism present a grim truth that few people in the UK have come to terms with. The British Empire wasn’t a benevolent club dedicated to education and improving the world. It was a big business. It was designed to suck wealth out of the dominions. To generate large sums of profit for a small number of people. This is not to say that some good things did happen. They did. But, on the whole it was a destructive force for many of the people within it. It worked by using deliberately divisive ‘divide and rule’ policies that created single nations from multiple groups of people.

The success of the British Empire is something of a puzzle to us now. How did such a small, and frankly not exactly efficient, nation become so successful? There are many reasons. Piracy, financial gambling on risky City investment schemes, the political manipulation of other nation’s affairs (‘divide and rule’), hired help, technology, systems and processes, luck, military power, and complete utter ruthlessness.

Where did slavery and Empire begin?

The Ancient Roman Empire had slaves. There was slavery in the Arab world, and in Africa. (The European slave traders bought their slaves from Africans.)

In Britain, Medieval serfs were essentially slaves. In return for their labour to the aristocracy, or landed gentry, they were given a small plot of land allowing them to subsist at little more than starvation level.

The slave trade was a continuation of the raw deal the serfs had. It was an imposed order. It provided cheap labour for plantation owners in the Americas. A workforce without any rights. Maximum productivity. Minimum costs. It was cruel and inhumane but it was also highly profitable for slave traders and plantation owners.

Even after slavery was abolished within the British Empire, its effects continued on. The lack of rights. Indentured labour schemes. Social deprivation. Prejudice. The lack of opportunity. And so on.

Why are there statues to slave owners in British cities?

One of the reasons why there are statues to former slave traders in British cities is that these people made a fortune from their plantations and from the slave trade. They bought their respectability through acts of local philanthropy in the UK. (The story of ethically dubious people buying their respectability is one of the oldest stories.)

We shouldn’t have statues celebrating people who owned slaves. It’s insulting and morally wrong.

Things were not much better after the Second World War

The Nazis also saw certain groups of people as objects, ‘raw material’ to be exploited. This was in part justified by viewing them as less intelligent and less human. The Nazis also made extensive use of slave labour during the Second World War.

The death camps were the end result of this racial view of the world. The British were appalled when they liberated Belsen Bergen. What they saw shocked them and the rest of the world.

Less than a decade after the liberation of Belsen Bergen, the British Army was murdering and torturing people in Kenya, during the Mau Mau Uprising. (Yes, there were atrocities on both sides.) But, somehow, because the people being murdered and tortured by the Army were Black, it didn’t matter so much to them. There was a racial element to how the British viewed the uprising and their own behaviour in putting it down. It is not known how many people were tortured and killed. Estimates range from thousands to tens of thousands.

You can read more about the Mau Mau Uprising at Wikipedia. Here are three quotes from the Wikipedia page that specifically detail the torture that was practiced:

We knew the slow method of torture [at the Mau Mau Investigation Center] was worse than anything we could do. Special Branch there had a way of slowly electrocuting a Kuke — they’d rough up one for days. Once I went personally to drop off one gang member who needed special treatment. I stayed for a few hours to help the boys out, softening him up. Things got a little out of hand. By the time I cut his balls off, he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him.

Prisoners were questioned with the help of ‘slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes’. Castration by British troops and denying access to medical aid to the detainees were also widespread and common. Among the detainees who suffered severe mistreatment was Hussein Onyango Obama, the grandfather of Barack Obama, the former President of the United States. According to his widow, British soldiers forced pins into his fingernails and buttocks and squeezed his testicles between metal rods and two others were castrated.

The historian Robert Edgerton describes the methods used during the emergency: ‘If a question was not answered to the interrogator’s satisfaction, the subject was beaten and kicked. If that did not lead to the desired confession, and it rarely did, more force was applied. Electric shock was widely used, and so was fire. Women were choked and held under water; gun barrels, beer bottles, and even knives were thrust into their vaginas. Men had beer bottles thrust up their rectums, were dragged behind Land Rovers, whipped, burned and bayoneted… Some police officers did not bother with more time-consuming forms of torture; they simply shot any suspect who refused to answer, then told the next suspect, to dig his own grave. When the grave was finished, the man was asked if he would now be willing to talk.’


The British Empire and the Nazis both abused groups of people on an industrial scale. Both systems had a racial view of the people they abused and exploited.

While Germany has, in some ways, come to terms with its troubled and difficult past, the British are still in denial about the British Empire. It’s only by coming to terms with this that we can move on.

2020–07–02


‘Little Joe’

I watched Little Joe (2020) with an open mind. Not being sure what to expect, my only preconception was that I was watching a science fiction horror film.

Little Joe isn’t a horrific horror film like The Exorcist or, Midsommar. It’s not a disturbing shock-fest. It won’t terrify you. In some ways it’s part of a fresh wave of horror films that are not particularly frightening, but more psychological, and thoughtful. It will make you think.

To anyone under thirty, it’s a bit like a Black Mirror episode spread out over a film. To anyone over thirty it’s a bit like a Twilight Zone episode. But this comparison is a little unfair. The production values and the visual look of the film is really impressive. The colours and the cinematography makes it an easy film to watch, even when there isn’t too much going on. And the tone creates a different vibe.

The handling of the subject matter is interesting (there’s a hint of Little Shop of Horrors with, The Day of the Triffids with, The Body Snatchers). And, because it’s done with subtlety, the implication of the story takes on a different meaning. The outcome is subversive.

2020–06–28


‘Things to Come’

Things to Come is a vision of the future, from 1936. It predicts the world from 1940 to 2036, beginning with a decades-long world war that leads to the destruction of civilisation. A new civilisation eventually rises from the ashes. It’s a society led by engineers and scientists. While the new epoch develops technologically at speed, many within it are unhappy, and uneasy with its obsession with science.

Some contemporary critics found the social collapse (after decades of war) hard to believe. And the future world, preposterous. Today after the Cold War, and the internet, anything seems possible.

In Things to Come, there are flying machines of various kinds (but no jets), flat screen TVs, wrist watch communicator devices, and a blitzkrieg-style of mechanised warfare. There’s a space gun (literally), but no rockets. And there’s a public address system in the form of a giant hologram.

Culturally the film is very much of its time. The dialogue is preachy. The interactions are often ridiculously wooden. And I found the music (acclaimed by many), imposing and unsubtle.

Early on a women says to her husband, ‘I wanted to serve you and make life happy for you.’ Weird, huh? Enough said.

As a culture, I found the Wings Over the World futureopolis incredibly dull. They call themselves the ‘freemasonry of science’. Please. No thanks. The futureopolis is all about engineering and building gigantic things. Little else. Don’t people want to have fun there? Don’t they get tired of being so earnest all the time?

Style-wise the futureopolis feels very Logan’s Run. Little has changed, thirty years later on from Things to Come. There’s a definite Ancient Rome of the future vibe going on. British Socialism of the 1950s. Or, conversely, Stalinism. There’s not much democracy around here either.

This is where it feels naive. With so much centralised power, wouldn’t the place have lapsed into some kind of authoritarian dystopia? It probably has… only the filmmakers don’t seem to realise it.

The post-apocalyptic Everytown (annoying name) that we met in the 1930s is now in ruins. This was my favourite section of the film. Sick people (with the plague-like ‘wandering sickness’) provide zombie-like cannon fodder. In a contemporary zombie film, popping a few zombies with head shots is all part of the genre. Think nothing of it. Here, it’s a fraught moral problem.

There’s no petrol in the post-apocalyptic Everytown. There’s a nice shot of a man in car. The camera pulls away and it’s being pulled by a horse. A nice visual gag. In this respect it’s a precursor to Mad Max. It’s a precursor to Five (1951) the first Cold War post-apocalyptic film. I could well be the first post-apocalyptic movie. Unlike most Cold War post-apocalypse stories from the Cold War this has a potentially optimistic outcome (with some caveats).

The post-apocalyptic Everytown is run by a Churchill-like character who’s become an authoritarian strong man. The culture has lapsed into ‘barbarity’. It didn’t seem that barbaric to me. I wanted more barbarity. Cannibalism. Or something. Spice it up. Just because they live in a ruined city, and the leadership is incompetent (ring any bells?), doesn’t mean that they’re barbarians. Or maybe to a 1936 audience it does? How could we ever know?

And then there’s the space gun. A big theme in early science fiction, and completely wrong.

Rockets. If you want to get people into space, that’s where it’s at.

At least a man and a women are sent up into space. How liberated. But there’s a big dilemma about going into space. Should we? Shouldn’t we? It’s a worry that never played out in the actual space race.

For all its limitations and flaws, Things to Come is still a remarkable prediction of the future. It also reminds storytellers that technology is in some ways easier to predict than cultural change.

Often in science fiction, contemporary issues (that seem important now) become non-issues. While issues that we would not see as important become unexpectedly significant. Things to Come acknowledges this in some ways. How the future (with hindsight of looking back into the past) would not seem entirely rational. And yet the futureopolis it presents feels weirdly fascistic with its engineer ‘ruler’ and oversized construction projects, scaled to make the individual seem insignificant.

2020–06–26


‘Hans Haacke: 4 Decades’

The post World War Two story of art has been one of packaging art into galleries, followed by a desire to escape the bounds of the art gallery, and its connected system. Haacke’s work has always existed in and out of the art gallery space.

Hans Haacke started out in the 1960s producing artworks that explored physical and biological systems. Then he turned his attention to sociological systems.

His mid phase artworks explored corporate advertising and art sponsorship (big banks, mining interests, heavy industry… you get the picture). More recently his focus has been aimed at mainstream political hypocrisy.

Back in the 1970s Haacke was creating subversive artworks attacking the hypocrisy of big business. Corporate environmental destruction, and their self-promotion as ethical entities while exploiting cheap labour and supporting apartheid South Africa.

Among my favourite Haacke artworks are his series of mock British Leyland adverts. They showcase images of luxury cars with text highlighting the exploitation of labour in apartheid South Africa. The spoof adverts also use stark comparisons between luxury cars and the police vehicles produced by British Leyland in scenes where government forces are repressing Black people. The series reads like Marcel Broodthaers via Noam Chomsky. The way these images use branding and expose corporate hypocrisy feels contemporary. How much has really changed? (If you like this kind of thing, projects like adbusters have spoofed adverts using a similar technique.)

Hans Haacke’s art is witty and funny. It’s cheeky and occasionally dark. He is clever but never over-intellectualised. While he references art history his goal is to appeal to a general audience.

What Haacke achieved within the galley system, Banksy later emulated within the street art movement (and even later, within the commercial gallery system, following on from his own success).

Gift Horse is a skeletal bronze horse. It is a slick, Jeff Koons-like sculpture in terms of its high production values. The bow around its neck shows the latest London stock prices. It was displayed on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth from March 2015 to September 2016. The plinth had originally been originally set aside to display a statue of William IV on a horse (the sculpture was never completed).

Gift Horse deals with typically Haacke themes: power (especially when it has a historical connection to art galleries and public spaces where the artwork is being displayed. The skeletal horse originates from a Stubbs drawing); big money (corporations, corporate power, and financial institutions like The City), and; social injustice (racism, the exploitation of workers, and government cuts to social services especially during the austerity period of the post-2007 financial crisis).

When the sculpture was unveiled, Boris Johnson described it as an ‘emaciated quadruped’. He talked-up the greatness of The City, to the amusement of the art world, because he failed to mention that the sculpture was a criticism of City greed, and austerity.

Hans Haacke is one of those great artists who’s hard to pin down. Is he a conceptual artist? Is he exploring systems and processes? Is he a political activist? Is he interested in institutional critique?

Over the years a lot of ‘big’ artists have gone by the wayside. They seem to be ‘of their time’ and increasingly irrelevant. Time has shown that they did not have substance. In the ensuing period Hans Haacke’s work has only become more powerful, and more relevant.

2020–06–25


Starting a novel

There are three ways to start writing a novel:

If you are the first or second kind of writer, all you need to do is start writing. Stop when you get to the end.

If you are the third type, you have two more choices:

While you are doing this, you may wish to consider:

Finally, there are two more choices:

(Maybe you’re thinking — why would anyone split a novel into multiple files? It seems weird? There’s a psychological benefit in writing smaller chunks of self-contained text. A goal of a few thousand words is a lot less intimidating than 80,000.

Then comes the easy part. Planned, or unplanned. Single file, or multiple files. All you have to do is write the words.

2020–06–02


How I write a novel

I’m writing a new novel. I thought it would be useful to record the process. I wish I’d done this before. So I could see how my approach has changed over the years. (I have already written about writing software).

Anyway, this is how I’m doing it now.

I start at the end. Which is to say my end goal. And I work back from that. My goal is to complete an 90,000+ word manuscript.

Next, I think about the chapters.

It’s important that the length of each chapter is feels comfortably obtainable. So I don’t get stressed. Stress means fear. Fear means writer’s block. It’s important to feel comfortable. Challenged. Yes. But also comfortable. I know that I can write 1,000 words on just about anything. (I do it on this blog all the time.) So that’s my comfortable word count length. It’s also makes for quite a short chapter, so I tend to write 1,000 word scenes and join them up into 3,000 word chapters.

To get to 90,000 words, I must write 90 1,000 word scenes, or 30 chapters. If your comfort length is 5,000 words you only need 16 chapters.

If you’re writing a novel with multiple POVs it’s a little more complicated. You might, for example, opt for alternate POVs. 15 x 3,000 word chapters in one POV. 15 chapters in a second POV… Whatever you prefer.

Next comes the outline. My concept of an ‘outline’ is a bare-bones bullet point list. Each bullet point is three to five words long. Three words is the ideal. If I can’t summarise a chapter in less than a dozen words then I have to question my grasp on the story. Typically each outline idea is: subject, verb, object. A character does something to something / someone. Or: Object, verb, subject. Something happens to someone / something.

It’s important not to start the outline as a numbered list. Numbers get you stuck into a fixed way of thinking. They lock you into an order. At the outline stage anything can and should change. This is where you shift things around. Do it here, rather than 65,000 words later on. So, avoid numbered chapters.

For now, stay in the comfort zone. Don’t stress out, because stress creates fear. Fear is writer’s block.

Begin with simple ideas, and build it up from there.

First. A simple idea for the story:

Then add a complication:

Then add a further complication:

Personally, I think it’s much easier to make an outline more complicated than it is to simplify complexity. Complexity is confusion, and confusion means writer’s block.

For example: ‘Zak is unfairly framed for a murder’ could occur over the space of three chapters and involve sub-elements — a build up.

Once I’ve got my basic ideas down, I start breaking them into scenes. Complicated stories are comprised of lots of smaller events (or scenes). Each one works in unison with the rest of the story.

After a fair amount of contemplation and tinkering (and coffee) I have enough scenes to make a story. In this case it’s about 90 scenes, or 30 3,000 word chapters.

The order of some of the scenes will inevitably have to be rejigged, removed, and new ones might have to be added. But — at some point — you should be, more of less, satisfied with what you’ve got. Ideally, this means that you’re good to go. The less changes from this point onwards, the better. Now you can start the actual writing.

Before I begin the writing, I have a clear understanding of the story. I’m aware of the POV, the dramatic action, the main characters, their motives, the tone, and the locations. This is how I do it now. I used to do it differently and I will probably change my process in the future. The important thing is to ensure the writing process is a creative experience that alleviates writer’s block.

Writer’s block is FUD. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. My aim is to provide a framework for my writing. So that I never have to feel that fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Although an outline means that I know exactly what is going to happen, I do not know how it is going to happen. This is the essence of suspense, and it ensures that the story I am writing is as exciting for me (as I write it) as it is (hopefully) for the reader.

2020–06–20


A failure of leadership

There’s declinism, Ozymandias. Things falling apart. A palpable sense of mortality. Entropy. Lifecycles. Whatever happens. Happens. Everything ends in failure. That kind of thing. These are truths that always were. And always will be.

And there are the current realities. Pandemics. Racism. Injustice. Intolerance. Greed. Stupidity. Ignorance in the age of digital information.

Are things getting worse? Were the standards in public life better when we were children?

I doubt it.

The difference, as you get older, is that you know more about the flawed people at the top. The ones who make the decisions affecting our lives.

What’s happening?

We’re experiencing a national failure of leadership. This is nothing new. It’s been happening for a long time. Probably forever. It’s endemic. Soaking into everything.

We have ‘leaders’ who aren’t leading. They’re managing the situation.

It comes across in different ways. The talk. The excuses. The blame. The spin. The lack of shame.

Instead of leadership we have a management culture. Instead of problem solvers we have spinners.

Where’s the vision?

Our so-called leaders have no plans. They believe in nothing. All they want is to hold on to their career or their electoral viability.

We’re witnessing a poverty of dreams.

In place of actual leadership, we have moral weakness. There’s a lack of core beliefs. Zero values. Damage limitation exercises. Evasion. The people in power no longer believe in doing anything.

In many cases they’re unable to act. They’ve outsourced their power to committees and processes. To systems that only exist to self-perpetuate. To the free market.

The problem with small government is that it can’t do anything. It hands over important responsibilities to big business. Small government is supposed to be agile. It’s not. It’s supposed to be more efficient. It’s not.

Where’s the vision gone? The new ideas?

It turns out. There are none.

Instead we have talk. More talk. More spin. Promises of inquiries. Conversations about reform. Requests for us to be patient. Wait. Change will come.

But change never comes.

What then?

In the meantime, we have a national incompetence. Organisational incompetence. Fewer and fewer real leaders. Fewer and fewer problem solvers.

Our so-called leaders aren’t doing anything. They have outsourced their leadership to the free market. They are protecting the status quo. They are brushing problems under carpets. Denying that there are problems. Denying that there are carpets.

The challenges of our times are complex. Structural. Intellectual. Changes of emphasis. The rediscovery of generosity.

We live in a distracted world. Motivation is low. The failure of leadership is wide-ranging. It’s a cultural phenomenon that’s permeated society.

2020–06–20


Storytelling environments

In storytelling, there are five basic environments:

The wilderness

The wilderness is essentially one person against nature. It can be in a desert, a jungle, a frozen landscape, or the sea. (The story can even take place in the sky, above a wilderness).

Sometimes it’s a small band of people (a family, or a group of people connected by a common situation or interest). Even if they work together, they remain individuals. They’re not a ‘society’ as such.

The wilderness hero is often a lone superhero, or he or she leads a small band of heroes.

The village

In the village, a small group of wonderers have come together and formed a society. Everyone has more of less the same power. Everyone is listened to. They may live in a camp, in tents, or in houses. The buildings are the same size. They are a community. People are there to help one another out.

The hero is a superhero who arrives from outside of the village, often from the wilderness.

The town

In the town some people have become more wealthy and powerful than others. They exert a greater influence. They employ other people to work for them. They control more of the land and resources. They live in larger houses. They run the larger businesses. Not everyone in the town is listened to, or treated fairly.

The hero may appear from the wilderness or come from the city. If they have come from the city it is because they have fled from a traumatic experience that’s left a lasting impression.

The city

In the city the divide between the powerful business owners and the poor has increased. The less wealthy and poor have less influence and power. The disparity shows in the architecture. The elite has joined forces to create a system that enforces their dominance.

The hero is an ordinary person who fights against bureaucracy, complacency, corruption, and injustice.

The megalopolis

In the megalopolis, the gap between the rich and poor has become obscene. A tiny elite has turned the lives of ordinary people into virtual slavery. It’s a police state. Ordinary people have almost no rights. The system is perpetuated by the elite who use violence and repression to control the population.

The hero of the megalopolis is a downtrodden ordinary man or woman who fights the system. Or they are someone from within the system (like a policeman) who refuses to be corrupted.


Social collapse can occur in any of these stages. The megalopolis can be destroyed by pandemic, nuclear war, or zombies. The city and megalopolis are often destroyed and replaced by the wilderness. (A kind of environmental reset.)

Space is often depicted as another kind of wilderness. The wilderness of space separates different planets. Planets can exist at any stage of development between wilderness and megalopolis.

Each stage has to build up, stage by stage. A catastrophic event, or a social collapse, however, can return a level multiple stages down.

2020–06–20


Hack the system

The 1990s saw the rise of a new kind of young hero. He or she was different to the ones that had come before. These new heroes were not armed with guns and fists. They were armed with laptops and modems. They sat in darkened rooms, dressed in fashionable black, peering into computer screens behind designer sunglasses. They were hackers.

Computer hackers, as we know them today, have their roots in Tron (1982), before the mainstream internet. In Tron, a protagonist uses his video games skills to enter into a virtual world. In Wargames (1983) a young adult uses a basic phreaking technique to hack into a sophisticated military defence computer. But it was really in the 1990s with films like, Sneakers (1992), Hackers (1995), The Net (1995), Ghost in the shell (1996), and culminating in the ultimate hacking film, The Matrix (1999), that hacking as we understand it today came into being.

The Matrix has come to epitomise the essential hacker tropes. The protagonist works outside the system. They discover something unusual and seek to reveal the truth. They have a street fashion or underground chic. They are usually anonymous, hiding their true identity. They are not after power or material gain.

Today, this otherness is more fully explored in the TV series Mr Robot and the Millennium series of novels and films, featuring the hacker, Lisbeth Salander. The series begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original Swedish title was, Men Who Hate Women). Lisbeth Salander is a survivor. She is a tough and resourceful character. She exposes the lies and corruption of powerful people who are abusing their power. These abuses of power involve the sexual exploitation of women and physical violence against women. The men hide behind positions of authority and social respectability.

Contemporary hackers in fiction are more emotionally evolved than their 1990s predecessors. They are emotionally scarred and suffer from mental health issues. And yet they are able to ‘fight the power’.

Back in the 1990s, hackers were the new upstarts: breaking into computers, stealing information, planting viruses to destroy main frame computers.

The hacker is the Robin Hood of the digital world. Fighting for justice and exposing the truth. The hacker has a code of conduct. They have a moral core. They are fighting a corrupt and twisted enemy that can call on the establishment (the government, the police, etc) to defend them. The hacker’s enemy knows how to use the media to twist the truth for their benefit. The hacker’s enemy have no moral scruples or shame.

In the 1990s, the virtual world used to be the climactic combat arena. It was an unexplored realm. A ‘new’ world, like the mythic Cowboy’s Old American West. A place so new that the characters could literally invent the rules.

It was a highly skeuomorphic world. Digital files were kept in metaphorical filling cabinets, housed in virtual corridors and rooms. Digital information was contained in simulations of physical spaces.

These days the actual process of hacking commands less attention. The skeuomorphism of virtual reality has gone. The process of hacking into a system is usually a quick shot of some plain text in a terminal, on a screen. The clatter of a keyboard and an exclamation: ‘we’re in!’. The focus of the drama has returned to the real world, to physical spaces — to the emotional experience of the hacker and their fight against the tyranny of injustice.

2020–06–14


‘Portrait of a Lady On Fire’

Sometimes you watch a film with low expectations. It turns out to be a surprise. A good one. Like it’s come out of nowhere. Then, at other times, you watch a film that has great reviews and it doesn’t live up to the hype.

For me, Portrait of a Lady On Fire is the second one. Even now I’m struggling to think of something interesting to say about it. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad film. Not at all. It’s a fine film.

A painter comes to paint a portrait. There’s a love affair. That’s the plot. Fair enough. It’s nice and simple. I like nice and simple. But it does feel like there should be a little more going on.

The location and French-ness of the film will appeal to Francophiles. To that Francophile middle-class English audience. The film is full of ‘lovely’. A lovely old house. Lovely coastal scenery. Lovely old clothes. Lovely bread and wine. A lovely rustic world. It’s all lovely.

I felt that the big romance in the story wasn’t really between the protagonists but between the viewer and all that ‘lovely’. And then there’s the appeal of history. A world without modern complication (apart from sexual equality and toleration), a world with no mobile phones, no internet, and no computer screens. It’s all lovely. Not particularly brilliant. But, nonetheless, still lovely. Like, A Year in Provence, it has the romance of French food, French people, and delving into a fantasy of history. It does feel like a fantasy version of history. The modern world imposed on the old. This is what historical fiction does though. I did feel that there should have been more sense of peril surrounding the relationship. The film really hinges on a codified sign that appears, later on, in a painting.

It’s probably a positive thing that a foreign language film can be released with two female leads, decent performances, nice scenery, and centre around a gay romance, but it did not really satisfy me as a story. Tonally, it plays on celebration rather than loss, and I am not sure if that maximises its dramatic potential.

2020–06–13


‘Escape From New York’

Escape From New York (1981) begins with a hijacked plane being deliberately flown (by a terrorist) into a Manhattan skyscraper. A similar tactic that was famously used by al-Qaeda twenty years later, on 11 September 2001.

The film is a fusion of high tech science fiction with a hero who’s straight out of an Old American West story. Here, Kurt Russell (who was also in John Carpenter’s 1982 horror, The Thing) is doing his best Clint Eastwood impression, as a character called ‘Snake’.

Snake is an anti-authority action hero. He acts like a teenager around his parents when he is given his mission briefing. The action sequences are ridiculous, comic book stuff, but nonetheless fun. Snake is a semi-superhero with his signature eye-patch, singlet, snake pattern drain pipes, and army boots. His hair looks like he’s just stepped out of a fancy salon. It’s all cleanly washed and blow dried.

In Escape From New York Manhattan Island has been turned into a gigantic open-air prison. Criminals are sent to the island, which has developed its own hierarchical gang system. But — even the most depraved and hardened criminal is no match for Snake and his deadly fashion sense.

Back in the 1970s and 80s urban gangs running amok was popular trope in science fiction and youth orientated stories. There were mean urban gangs, motorcycle gangs, zombie gangs, genetically mutated gangs. The gang type here is the tough urban gang. These inner-city gangs are usually fiefdoms run by megalomaniac madmen with terrible haircuts. Films like The Warriors (1979) dealt with this underground youth culture. This bubbled up into Hollywood cliché, epitomised by the punk-fashion inspired gangs featured in the Mad Max film series.

Women in many of these action films tend to be stereotypical Hollywood prostitutes or young innocents that need protecting. (Films like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) have attempted to rectify this).

Escape From New York is targeted at fourteen-year-old boys, so it’s out of the question that Snake would be interested in a relationship. All he wants to do is smoke cigars, look cool and shoot the place up with his guns. What any fourteen-year-old boy in 1981 might have imagined as being an authentic male role!

In 1996, John Carpenter made Escape From LA. It’s the same plot, but it is set in LA and with a bigger budget. It was a huge flop at the box-office. Even though it came 15 years later is feels like nothing has changed. Aesthetically it’s also very similar.

You can make the same film twice, but an audience expects it to deviate from the original in some meaningful way. Maybe it was the character of Snake himself who needed to evolve?

2020–06–13


Stories: celebrations and warnings

In simple terms there are two basic stories: happy ones and unhappy ones.

For dramatic effect, a sophisticated story contains sections within it that will be happy, while other sections will be unhappy. A satisfying story demands changes in tone. In a film, it’s the ending that ultimately decides if the story as a whole is one or the other.

Happy stories are celebrations. They are uplifting, jubilant — sometimes comedies, sometimes serious in tone, more often than not associated with success. Unhappy stories are warnings, tragedies — linked to failure. Hansel and Gretel is a warning that turns into a celebration. Scarface is a celebration that turns into a warning.

Dramatic stories are extremes of the two states. Constant reversals of fortune. Less dramatic stories are more nuanced, existing within a grey area. The audience continues reading or watching to find out if the story is a celebration or a warning, or a combination of the two.

In the sandpit metaphor of storytelling, stories are safe places where readers or an audience can safely experience emotions. The sandpit offers a child a simulation of reality. Fiction offers readers and an audience a place where they can have emotional experiences without putting themselves in danger.

Celebrations are the heroic victories that we look up to and admire. They are simulations of success.

Warnings tell us not to emulate the characters, or pay a price, because poor choices, bad luck, and foolishness bring ill fortune. We read or watch their mistakes reassured that we are not so foolish.

Readers and audiences are emotionally fascinated by the spectacle — the admiration, or the schadenfreude — of watching fictional characters face or avoid their challenges. Their dreams and fears. Sometimes we wish we were more like them. Sometimes we’re glad it’s them and not us.

2020–06–07


What are stories for?

Stories are everywhere. We can’t have conversations without intuitively using them. They come so naturally to us that we’re hardly aware of their presence.

Stories go beyond merely sharing basic information. We use them to interpret. To bring meaning to remembered events. We use them to project our ideas about the future.

Stories are repackaged, shared experiences. They allow us to travel in time. We use them to work out what really matters to us. To expose social transgressions. To affirm our values and aspirations.

Stories are part of how we make critical observations. We use them as simulations to evaluate other peoples’ behaviour. Fiction allows readers to do this within a controlled space. We can safely be fascinated by characters, empathise with them, fear them. We use stories to learn about ourselves. To imagine how we might react to similar challenges.

The act of storytelling is a powerful social bonding experience. Stories draw people together. They affirm shared beliefs and judgements.

I think, in some ways, fiction works differently from factual stories. There’s clearly a grey area between the two. Real life stories tend to be extraordinary because they break with the mundane. They involve new scenarios. New sets of challenges. A new social politics. New solutions. Or an inability to reach a solution (which is a solution in itself).

Fiction tends to explore our feelings for characters. Often characters who are different from us. Fiction tends to reinforce preexisting ideas about the world. What we already know and believe. It’s a comforter. The hero in fiction is the ultimate comforter.

Much delight, and confusion, arises from confusing fiction with reality. People do fill in the blanks with their own assumptions. They impose layers of fiction into their own lives. To the point where it’s a challenge to differentiate between the two.

Every point of view is a kind of fiction. It’s one person’s interpretation. A reconstruction of the world.

Power is about imposing a single viewpoint on other people. Establishing it as the perceived ‘truth’.

For people writing fiction, all characters at their heart are trying to make sense of their world. They’re interesting to readers and film audiences because we’re also making sense of our world.

2020–06–07


‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’

The coming of age story is all about innocence. And the loss of innocence. Expectations. Fears. Hopes. Change.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) does a great job capturing the uncertainty of adolescence. It charms, and amuses without without overplaying its hand.

The over-nighter scenario (American Graffiti (1973), Dazed and Confused (1993), Superbad (2007), Booksmart (2019)) is a common one in coming of age stories. It captures the sense that everything is to play for during the course of a single night. What they do, or don’t do will impact the rest of their lives. They can’t afford to mess it up. Time is running out for them to learn the rules of adulthood, to begin living their own lives, to make sense of their reality, to take their own choices, to think for themselves. If they don’t get it right on this night they will somehow be forever catching up, or doomed to forever miss the point. Failing. Lonely. Unsuccessful. Watching their friends be happy and succeed. It’s a c classic case of FOMO (fear of missing out).

The Myth of the American Sleepover, like all coming of age stories, with its nostalgic music, first loves, and encroaching sense of newly forming individual identities, captures a lost moment in time. A single night marks the end of childhood. Something new is about to happen. And nobody knows what it will be. It might be something you least expect — or something you subconsciously half-realised all along.

2020–06–07


‘Under the Silver Lake’

Under the Silver Lake (2018) is a homage to noir cinema. There’s a great performance by Andrew Garfield, a slick Hitchcockian film-score, and constant references to classic noir films, male desire, beautiful women, and unhappiness.

Right from the opening, which quotes Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the scene is set for Sam’s journey. We get the usual noir runaround. There’s a bit of Harper here, The Big Lebowski, some magic, some horror, a bit of this, a bit of that, Magnolia, and North By NorthWest. This genre, or sub genre of crime / detective fiction (take your pick), continually reinvents itself: the slick talking hardboiled detective, the bedraggled has-been character of neo Noir, to the professional robot killer of sci-fi noir, and the high schooler protagonist of Brick. This time around it’s Postmodern Noir, a thirty-something millennial, ‘out of it’.

Noir is always about a protagonist who is essentially lost, disconnected from the world, the search for whatever mystery is presented in the story is little more than a meandering McGuffin — the real search is one of personal revelation, truth and happiness. Insight. This is why, simple or complicated, noir stories are not about plots that are supposed to make complete sense. It’s a journey, that’s all. The story is a metaphor for life, like all fiction, but more so with noir. It’s a chase, but the character only realises at the end that they’re chasing themselves.

There’s a lot going on in, Under the Silver Lake. Sam’s obsession evokes Close Encounters — but this time he’s obsessed with women, one particular women, and conspiracy theory. It’s about the search for an unobtainable ideal. The quest for happiness is the search for magic ingredient ‘X’. Unobtanium. He’s stuck in a loop, unable to get over his ex-girlfriend. Now, he believes, life is passing him by. He mourns the life that could have been. A dream that will never happen. His ex is literally the idealised face on an advertising billboard.

All of a sudden, he meets a beautiful women. This is ‘the one’ he believes. There’s a real connection this time…

Sam is a flawed character. I can understand why some viewers might find him unlikeable. I did empathise with him, and even when I didn’t, I did always found him interesting to watch. Noir stories, like this one, are usually first person stories. In Under the Silver Lake we’re witnessing Sam’s story. It is his POV. How he reacts to women, and how they react to him are part of his own life experience. I’m wondering, would a device like a voiceover have helped to convey this more clearly?

I’ve watched, and enjoyed, a lot of noir over the years. Noir deals with fear, betrayal, desire, distrust, cheaters, liars, and bullshit. Male insecurity and a kind of tongue-in-cheek gynophobia. The protagonist is often an anti-hero, a ‘washed up’ character, or what Hollywood might call a ‘loser’ (in other words he is not confident, rich, and handsome).

It’s the world itself — with its betrayals, distrust, cheats, liars, and bullshit — that the protagonist doesn’t get. In some ways the central character is a classic naïf. But, as always, the protagonist, somehow (does it really matter), returns full circle, back to the beginning. The same, but a little wiser. In this case it’s in a scene that is an oblique reference to, The Last Picture Show.

2020–06–06


‘The Assistant’

In The Assistant (2019) Jane gets her dream job in the film industry. She rapidly discovers the realities of working as a lowly assistant in an environment where the staff experience verbal abuse, and the boss uses his power to systematically sexually harass young women.

What should Jane do? Should she pretend that everything is fine and that nothing bad is happening — or should she speak up?

The film explores the network of enablers who support abusive people in positions of power: by turning a blind eye to their behaviour, or by actively enforcing an environment that tolerates and normalises abuse.

I found The Assistant an uncomfortable watch. This isn’t a story with heroes or easy solutions. There’s no quick fix here, or characters with superpowers to put the world’s wrongs to right. In some ways the story is too realistic, so completely believable that it’s depressing.

The perpetrators of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace usually command positions of power, or are able to call on the support of powerful people higher up the organisation. This is why bullying in the workplace occurs in the first place — because the perpetrators feel empowered to bully and sexually harass people, because they know that they can get away with it without recrimination. And why their sense of entitlement precludes them from expressing any shame or guilt.

The Assistant chronicles these realities, portraying a selfish and egotistical boss, a person who can turn on the charm and instantly switch to threatening behaviour, making everyone afraid of him.

The problem with this story is that it doesn’t tell the viewer anything which we didn’t already know. And it’s nothing new to the audience that organisations defend the powerful and influential perpetrators of such abusive behaviours (because of the widespread system of enablers).

Clearly this is a story coming in the wake of ‘me too’ awareness. It’s definitely a worthy story that tackles the subject with intelligence and sensitivity. But it presents a grim reality that has little in the way of positives to counteract the darkness of the subject matter. But, by sticking to a realistic narrative, and eschewing Hollywood cliché, the film retains its artistic integrity.

2020–06–03


Cinderella and the Euro Millions

There are two basic stories:

They can be refined further:

And they can be refined even further:

In the happy story, for example, a promising young athlete is mentored by an older athlete, who won an Olympics gold medal many years ago. The young athlete goes on to win his or her own gold medal.

In the unhappy story, a promising young athlete is mentored by an older athlete, who won an Olympics gold medal many years ago. The young athlete is badly injured by a drunk driver and is unable to take part in the upcoming Olympics.

Here’s another version that combines the unhappy story with the happy story, or — work hard (or not) and someone/something makes you fail + Work hard (or not) and someone/something helps you become successful:

A promising young athlete is mentored by an older athlete, who won an Olympics gold medal many years ago. The young athlete is badly injured by a drunk driver and is unable to take part in the upcoming Olympics. His/her slow and painful recovery receives widespread media attention. He/she becomes a national hero and completes a charity walk across the country, gaining the admiration and respect of the entire population.

After a bad situation (bad luck) the young athlete gets lucky.

While stories need to feel realistic and authentic in some way, many stories incorporate good fortune through a magical stroke of luck.

In Cinderella, Cinderella does all the hard work cleaning the house, she’s downtrodden, taken for granted and bullied by her stepsisters. And then a fairy godmother appears from nowhere and turns her into a princess. Bingo! She’s won the lottery.

Cinderella is a simple unhappy to happy story, from unlucky to lucky. Stories are variations of good and bad fortune, good and bad luck — dramatic reversals. It’s Katniss Everdeen’s continually shifting fortune, from success to failure, from happy to unhappy, that makes, The Hunger Games such an addictive read.

2020–06–03


‘Parasite’

It’s a contemporary story with a scenario straight out of a 19th Century English novel (like the struggling Bennet family striving to ‘do better’ in, Pride and Prejudice), with 1980s Hollywood comedies like, The Housesitter (1992), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), but done through the contemporary Korean lens and aesthetic.

It’s put together in the style of classic theatrical comedy, false identities, and characters hiding under the bed, with the Kim family stepping into the role of the Bennet family — but here it’s all put to a darkly comic effect.

Class and social hierarchy is the dominant theme, with the Kim family living in a tiny basement while the wealthy Park family live in a beautiful modernist house with an immaculate garden. The theme of characters living below ground reappears later in the story.

While I enjoyed it — it’s an accessible Korean film for a Western audience — I preferred Burning (2018), another South Korean film, which has a similar class and social hierarchy theme. Parasite felt a little bit too much like a crowd pleaser for me, and it lacked the deeper resonance and poetry of Burning.

2020–06–02


On text editors and word processors

What software do you use to write your fiction? The chances are that you’re using Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, or Apple Pages — a word processor.

Word processors offer convenient WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) environments to write in. People often find it reassuring to know that the words appearing on their screens will look exactly the same when they’re printed out. Word processors also tend to come loaded with features (mostly aimed at people working in offices).

One of the benefits of using a word processor is seeing the actual pages and being able to quickly gauge word counts and work levels from the number of pages (instead of word counts). The problem with word processors is that they can seem bloated and over-complicated when it comes to writing fiction, which only needs a modicum of basic formatting.

So-called minimalist text editors, especially ones using Markdown, have become increasingly popular with writers. They remove the need to style and format the text as the draft is being written. The formatting is left to the export phase. This can result in a simpler draft writing experience.


Word processors

Microsoft Word

Microsoft World is a word processor. It offers the standard WYSIWYG page view. A subscription to Microsoft 365 comes with 1 terabyte of One Drive cloud storage, plus other Office programs like PowerPoint and Excel.

The Word file format is the industry standard file format for submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers. Word has a useful outline view to help structure a novel and to check individual chapter word counts. Both the macOS and Windows versions have a distraction free setting which hides most of the interface from view. The spellcheck is one of the most up-to-date.

Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows.

Apache OpenOffice

Apache OpenOffice is a free office productivity suite, which includes a word processor. It’s more clunky than Word or Pages, but it gets the job done, and it’s free.

Platforms: Linux, macOS, Windows.

Pages

Pages) is the free word processor that comes with Apple devices. It is slightly nicer to use than Word, because it’s less complicated. Word’s outline view is more powerful making it easier to check chapter-by-chapter word counts. The macOS spellcheck in Pages is good, but not quite as up-to-date with new words as Microsoft Word.

Platforms: iOS, macOS.

Scrivener

Scrivener is a halfway house between a pure word processor and a text editor. The result is a bit like Microsoft Word for writers. It’s a powerful app that offers a lot of customisation, brilliant document navigation and document structuring options. It’s a good choice for writing complicated documents, especially if you want to include research notes and illustrations. On the downside, the editor interface feels unnecessarily complicated.

Platforms: iOS, macOS, Windows (Beta version)


Text editors

Ulysses

Ulysses is a markdown text editor with a clean interface and a useful document navigation sidebar or ‘sheets’ to organise the structure (scenes or chapters) of a novel.

The ‘sheets’ sidebar and document management makes it possible to manage documents / files from within the app. I also like the app’s ability to split ‘sheets’ where the cursor is, or to merge multiple sheets together.

The app has become more complicated over time, adding features and making design choices to attract a wider range of users, while also probably losing some existing ones who prefer a simpler app. It has some quirks, which you may like or find annoying, especially in the over-designed way that it handles some basic feature like backup and displaying an always visible word count if you want one.

Platforms: iOS, macOS.

Highland 2

Highland 2 is another Markdown text editor. Unlike Ulysses it stays more purist to the Markdown philosophy. As well as prose, Highland 2 is also designed for writing screenplays.

Highland 2 is an equivalent to Ulysses (like Ulysses it has its own file format extension), but it comes at writing and organising text from a slightly different angle. It doesn’t have the built-in file management that Ulysses offers (but its relative simplicity can be viewed as a positive, depending how you think about it). It also doesn’t have some Ulysses’ annoying quirks and design choices.

It would be nice to split and merge files from within Highland 2 (which Ulysses can do). It does have paragraph numbering, which I find really useful these days, and the abaility to drag and drop multiple files (chapters) into the app to create a larger, single document. The backup system on Highland 2 is much simpler than Ulysses. It simply saves files every 15 minutes to a designated folder in the .highland format as well as the text as a .md file. It is a simple solution that most writers are likely to prefer. Highland 2 is a good compromise between simplicity and features.

Platforms: macOS.

iA Writer

iA Writer is more stripped-down than Ulysses or Highland 2. You can’t change the built-in font (it’s a nice font), but that will be a deal-breaker for many people.

It doesn’t have quite the same built-in file management capabilities as Ulysses, but it does offer document (file) management from within the app. It has some interesting language / prose style checking features.

Unlike Ulysses (which automatically re-names files / ‘sheets’ when the main document heading is changed), iA Writer uses the traditional method of having fixed file names. It also uses the standard .txt file format. That’s a minor technical point but something that some people will prefer.

Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows.

Byword

Byword is a very simple macOS Markdown text editor. The macOS version doesn’t come with an in-app document navigation sidebar like some other apps, so it won’t suit people who are looking for that. It is wonderfully simple, and the app is very reasonably priced. It does not have any unique features, but it’s really nicely designed and easy to use. It was one of the first minimalist markdown editors for macOS.

Platforms: iOS, macOS.

FocusWriter

Focus Writer is a useful text editor for Windows and Linux. Out of the box the thematic template isn’t particularly appealing, but it can be customised with very little effort. It’s donation-ware.

Platforms: Windows, Linux.

2020–06–02


Coffee and writing

It’s essential to take proper refreshment during the writing process. In Reacher Said Nothing, Andy Martin discovered that Lee Child drinks over 20 cups of coffee a day, smokes slightly more Camel cigarettes and eats mostly breakfast cereals. This is nothing new — coffee has long been a key ingredient of literary success.

John Gruber defined success as coming from three essential qualities — being a ‘fussy coffee drinker’, using a ‘clicky keyboard’, and drinking lots of ‘over-carbonated water’ (in his case, double-fizzed water from a Soda Stream).

I’ve always been a coffee person. (And I like bubbly mineral water, so I’m two-thirds of the way there.) I drink one or two cups a day, so I’m nowhere in Lee Child’s league.

I used to have my own fussy coffee preparation technique using an original Melitta ceramic dripper cone with white Melitta filter paper. Filter paper used to be made using an environmentally unfriendly chlorine bleaching process. The upside was that it left no weird aftertaste. I haven’t found a non-bleached filter paper that tastes even half okay. In any case, I don’t want to used bleached filter paper now.

It’s possible to make great coffee in more of less any kind of container simply by pouring the coffee through a tea strainer. It sounds weird but it works fine. All you have to do is make sure you’re using medium coarse coffee designed for a cafetière. It does work with finely ground coffee, except that the sediment settles to the bottom, producing a sort of Turkish coffee. If you drink the coffee with a little care, it stays there. These days I use a cafetière because I like strong coffee and I like to let it sit and stew for a while. This is ‘cowboy coffee’, and coffee snobs would probably look down on this method, but for me it’s the only way to get the full flavour.

The second best thing to a hot coffee, is an iced coffee. Iced coffee is a great summer drink. Naturally, I have a fussy iced latte making technique as well. This is how you make it. Get a pint glass. Fill it a third full with milk. (I use regular milk. It should work with plant based milks, but I haven’t tried it myself.) Then fill the next third with cold water. Leave the last third empty. Pour the contents into a blender (preferably a powerful one. I have a classic Vitamix). Add decent instant coffee to taste. Blend on full power for 25 seconds. Hey presto, pour it out into the pint glass with a few ice cubes and you now have a pint glass full of what looks like the creamy top of a Guinness pint — but the whole glass is the head of the pint. It even has the same gravity effect (as it settles, like a pint of Guinness). This drink is like nothing else. Paradise.

Coffee and all-day breakfast cereal is the writing nourishment of champions.

2020–06–01


The dead are alive again

Stories where dead bodies are brought back to life are not new. The resurrection story of Jesus Christ in the New Testament of The Bible is probably the most famous. There’s an Ancient Egyptian resurrection story too (the story of Prometheus), and there are other ancient resurrection stories and myths from around the world. These life-transcending stories are about overcoming mortality. In more recent times stories of the dead coming back to life are less like miracles and magic from the gods, but something to be afraid of.

Zombies as we know them have their origins in ancient West African mythology. These stories were brought over to Brazil and the West Indies with Voodoo. In them, corpses are reanimated through magic. This idea was been adopted by later storytellers to include bodies being reanimated through genetic mutation, laboratory experiments, and disease.

Frankenstein’s monster is a zombie of sorts. He’s the byproduct of modern science, a creature who’s been reanimated from multiple corpses. As with so much early science fiction and horror originating in the 19th Century, Frankenstein represents fears about science and technology running out of control.

Vampires literally live off the blood of the living. Their victims die and then come back to life as vampires who remain loyal to their master and live by sucking the blood of their victims to remain alive. The vampire story has underlying themes about transcending mortality (at a cost) and battles of good against evil. There’s a spiritual and religious element to vampire stories. Dracula is sometimes represented as the devil on earth, sometimes he’s depicted as an afflicted being forced to prey on the living, and sometimes more playfully as a kind of dandyish, lustful character enjoying carnal pleasures.

The living dead in zombie films like Night of The Living Dead (1968) reflect ideas about catastrophic social change, the ills of consumerism, social disconnection, and eco-disaster. George A Romero was heavily influenced by Richard Matheson’s, I Am Legend. But, instead of chronicling the end of a catastrophe Romero wanted to film how it started.

Zombies tend to be monstrous, frightening, ‘the other’ — drained of humanity. Zombie stories are about the fear of contagion and the fear of loosing our own humanity through a simple bite. Zombies are abominations, breaking natural laws and social norms, but they are often portrayed in a way that acknowledges they were once human.

2020–06–01


The rise of stupid logic

Back in the days before the internet and social media, the closest thing you got to someone with genuinely ludicrous ideas was a crowded pub. Without anywhere else to go you were forced to listen to their bullshit for a couple of minutes.

These days the nonsense-talkers are on social media. These platforms allow them to publish their opinions to a wider audience. And, with social media, likeminded thinkers can team up to support one another — nothing happens in a vacuum now.

Traditional media — newspapers, magazines and the TV networks — in the UK have restrictions on what they can and can’t say. They’re held accountable and so they have to consider their responsibilities to the regulators. Social media platforms don’t need to provide the same degree of accountability. They retroactively police content, and usually not very effectively.

Free speech comes with responsibilities and social media platforms have repeatedly broken these responsibilities — allowing their users to publish racist material, hate comments, to bully and harass other users, and to publish lies.

Publishing to the web is publishing. Just because it’s being done by a ‘non-professional content creator’ shouldn’t mean that it’s unaccountable.

Why is this not being regulated effectively?

It’s debatable if misinformation and stupid logic is on the rise, but it definitely seems to be more visible. In tandem with social media there appears to be a lowering of standards with regards to how world leaders address issues. More and more of them are using social media to talk to their supporters in the tone of a pub conversation.

President Trump has recently said some strange things about shining lights ‘into’ the human body, and injecting bleach directly into the body to cure Covid-19. Injecting bleach into the human body obviously isn’t something that anyone should be doing — it could be lethal.

Stupid logic uses the syllogism, taking two true or logical facts to arrive at an absurd conclusion. For example:

The weird thing is that stupid logic might lack common sense and be complete bullshit, but it does have undeniable reasoning to it, even if that reasoning is bogus.

During the 2019 Covid-19 lockdown there’s been a rise in stupid logic — from ideas that the disease (which is a virus) is spread by 5G phone masts (this feels like something out of the film They Live). Masts have in the past been linked to cancer, which is of course a worry. But it’s ridiculous to say that they spread Coronavirus.

There’s also a lot of stupid logic based around racist ideas, individual freedom, anti-equality and anti-rights issues, women’s bodies, and public health. One can argue there’s a corresponding rise in superstition, and other bogus cultural fears.

Individual freedom is often cited as a reason to refuse to participate in public health inoculation programs. So called ‘anti-vaxers’ (or anti-vaccination, or vaccine hesitant) fight against compulsory inoculation essentially because they don’t trust the government. They believe the individual should be free to choose not to be vaccinated. Sometimes there is a political dimension because public health services are perceived as ‘socialist’.

During the 2019 ‘lockdown’ people protested about the ‘lockdown’, believing that government restrictions were anti-business, and infringed on their personal rights.

The so called ‘post truth’ world is really a catchphrase for stupid logic. Stupid logic spreads lies, knowingly or through ignorance. Today the pub nutters and lords of the lies have an audience… thanks to social media.

I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say that social media popularises lies and bullshit. Its defenders will say that it also popularises the truth — it’s just a tool people use to communicate. But there’s a fundamental question here — if bullshit has become the ‘new normal’ what does this mean for democracy in the longer term? Democracy needs a nuanced and responsible public debate in order to thrive.

2020–06–01


First person Vs third person viewpoints

The first person perspective tells the story intermediated through the experience of a single experiencer. This viewpoint provides it’s own subjectivity and context. The third person perspective focuses on telling the story, by the ‘storyteller’, which may be swayed from a particular character’s perspective or from multiple character viewpoints. Multiple first person viewpoint stories are, by definition, not told from the perspective of a single experiencer. They are really third person stories wrapped in chapters that use the stylistic immediacy of the first person viewpoint.

The third person viewpoint does allow the reader to experience a character’s thoughts. The difference between the two depends a lot on what the reader finds most immersive — the protagonist’s experience or the storyteller and the storytelling itself. There’s a huge amount of personal preference involved.

I like the first person experience, living inside the protagonists head. It emphasises the character’s experience over a more complete telling of the story. But, the first person can veer towards solipsism if handled badly.

The third person perspective places more importance on the bigger picture, how characters relate to other characters and wider events.

The first person viewpoint works well with surprise and revelation. The third person works well for suspense (which is based on knowing more of the story elements but not knowing when it how they will come into conflict with one another). In many ways, the third person viewpoint is the more optimised storytelling option. But a lot of it comes down to personal preference — where the reader prefers to be when they read a story.

2020–05–31


Lee Child: the reading experience

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels have two different beginnings. The first begins with a subdued normalcy. It’s just an ordinary day. But it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong. What? When? The second type of start is the running jump, which goes straight into the action.

The tension increases during the novel as Reacher learns more about his opponents. As he does, he realises that he has a bigger challenge on his hands.

At some point he will become aware that there are innocent people involved. He could take out the baddies but they might suffer. Or, the baddies get to an innocent person. And kill them before Reacher realises what they are up too. This is the sacrifice that motives Reacher to tackle the baddies.

The dramatic peaks are followed by lulls in the tension. These can encompass a romantic interlude, or meeting a character with useful information. The action sequences tend to slow time down, stretching it out like elastic. The chapters are relatively short and end with new information, a reversal, a threat, or plan — a change of situation.

The story usually has two main action sequences. In the first one Reacher makes his mark and shows his strength. This is when the story goes from a mystery into a thriller. This is when Reacher begins his offensive.The baddies reassemble, they use underhand tactics, brutality, or bring in more support for the main battle. The climactic battle is followed by a quick denouement that ends with Reacher leaving town (heading towards the next adventure).

The reader knows exactly what they’re getting when they read a Jack Reacher novel. But they don’t know when things will happen or how they happen — that’s how suspense works.

In terms of the style and language, the dialogue is really great because it feels like action. It feels like interrogation and conflict. It’s purposeful but entertaining. It often has a hint of hardboiled detective fiction about it.

The sense of detail is palpable in the Lee Child’s description. Sometimes it’s comprehensive, but much of it is suggested using a montage of simple statements. They are the writing equivalent to a succession of quick film edits.

The sentences are concise. They stick to one clear idea at a time. There’s a fair amount of repetition. Words and phrases are repeated for effect. The longer sentences tend to be repetitions, for emphasis, or virtual lists.

The narrative is basically a good old mystery story (sometimes with hints of Alfred Hitchcock). It’s carefully presented not to confuse the reader. The narrative goes from a mystery story — unanswered questions (the sleuth deciphering clues) — to an action adventure. In the action adventure phase, Reacher takes the initiative by confronting the baddies.

Lee Child writes in the past tense. Most of the stories are told as if they’re unfolding as we read them. Some are set in Reacher’s past and recounted with hindsight.

In the first person stories the reader gets to experience Reacher’s thoughts as he works things out for himself. We only know what he knows. We experience the discoveries as he uncovers them. The action has to always be where Reacher is. Things that happen away from him are either unknown or have to be reported back to him in some way, usually through the dialogue.

The third person stories provide more storytelling flexibility. They allow the reader an insight into what the baddies are doing covertly, behind the scenes. They can also link up different elements of the story, during it, rather than through some kind of wrap up at the end, through hindsight, or through an end-of-story confession by an antagonist.

2020–05–31


The Zoot Suit Riots

Zoot suits are suits with long jackets and baggy trousers that taper in at the ankle. Sometimes they are plain and only distinguished by their cut. Sometimes they are elaborately decorated and worn with a long watch chain. They originated within the US black community in the 1930s and spread to Hispanic, and Italian communities in the US, and were often worn by jazz artists.

The baggy Zoot Suit is less restrictive and easier to dance in. It’s also an item of ‘conspicuous consumption’, because the cut of a zoot suit uses more fabric than other contemporary suits of the time — that opulence, especially during the Second World War, a period of rationing, saw them labelled as unpatriotic.

The Zoot suit was the 1940s equivalent of dressing up as a Teddy boy in 50s England. Teds listened to rock and roll and wore similarly anti-austerity suits modelled on Edwardian outfits (an outward rejection of post-war austerity).

The 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in the US were sparked by hostility between military servicemen and the Hispanic community in Los Angeles. Servicemen armed with sticks and clubs, escorted by police, attacked Zoot Suitors who had been held responsible for attacking US servicemen. The riots had a clear racial element to them. Many Zoot Suiters were beaten up and their suits were stripped from them, burned, and even urinated on.

During the Second World War there were race riots in a number of other US cities. The State Un-American Activities Committee blamed the Zoot Suit Riots on Nazi spies agitating the Hispanic community.

Zoot suits are weirdly fascinating because of their outlandish cut and the political association with black, Latino and Hispanic self-expression. They are often depicted in contemporary paintings of the time. Malcolm X was a Zoot Suiter in his youth. They’re an early example of politicised clothing identified with a youth culture, their music, and spirit of rebellion, a precursor to the many other youth movements that have followed.

At a time during the Second World War when the US was fighting fascism in Europe, it was itself a racially divided country — and much the same thing can be said today.

2020–05–30


Who is Jack Reacher?

Lee Child is today’s Ian Fleming and Jack Reacher is the modern Bond. Of course, Jack Reacher is nothing like James Bond. How could he be? He’s a fictional character created in a different world — about half a century after Bond. Different times require different heroes.

Jack Reacher is a fusion of the contemporary and the traditional hero. He works with people like a contemporary hero, has romantic relationships like a contemporary hero, but his skills and judgement is almost superhuman, very much like a classical hero. In some ways he’s more capable than James Bond (Ian Fleming’s Bond not Hollywood’s Bond). His strength and intelligence is on the scale of Doc Savage.

Reading a Jack Reacher novel in first person is a bit like playing a first person shooter computer game in ‘god mode’, you know that Reacher is invulnerable. Part of the fun is finding out how he outsmarts his opponents. He’s as sharp witted as Sherlock Holmes.

At times Reacher does come close to being a know-it-all. But he isn’t. Why’s that?

For one thing, he occasionally admits that he’s flummoxed. A real know-it-all wouldn’t do that. A know-it-all is someone who gets his or her facts mainly from reading about things. Reacher knows the things that matter because it comes from his actual experience. Because of that, we respect him. He understands the world, at least his world. He’s focused on getting the job done, not trying to impress us. Lastly, and probably most importantly, the reader wants him to take command of the situation, to be in control. Heroes (male and female) are control fantasies.

Reacher is likeable because he’s selfless and risks his life for others. He is a semi-superhero, especially when he takes on multiple opponents in a street fight, and he’s not exactly a lazy lover either.

Reacher’s character is many things. He’s the unassuming hero with no name. Except that he does have a name. He’s a wandering loner hero like a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western character. The man from nowhere arrives at a small town and is forced into battle with the baddies. Once he’s secured victory over them, justice served and the truth exposed, he leaves without any fanfare.

Reacher is also part Dirty Harry. He has a healthy disdain for bureaucracy and management types. He sympathies with the ordinary man and women. He is disdainful of politics and politicians. He does things his own way. Takes shortcuts.

But Dirty Harry is a conventional character mostly working within the system. Reacher is different because he usually works outside of the system. In this sense he’s like the hero of the TV series, Kung Fu or, The Hulk. And his lack of materiality verges on the monastic, again like Kung Fu. He’s also part chivalric knight, bound by a code of honour. He’s part hardboiled noir character (not much of a talker), and part Sherlock Holmes (sees all the clues and makes insightful deductions), and part Richard Hannay from The Thirty-Nine Steps (uncovering a mystery on his own with little, or no backup).

Being an outsider, a wandering loner, could mark Reacher out as a creepy weirdo, especially when he’s hanging around a neighbourhood in out-of-office hours. To counteract this, Reacher has romantic relationships that show he’s a well balanced, normal person. But the relationships never last.

His need to keep moving means that he can’t lead a regular life, have a long-term relationship, settle down, maybe even have a family. He is too busy being a hero to do any of that. This makes him earnest, a character the reader can empathise with because he’s making a sacrifice. He can’t have the one thing that most of his readers have — an ordinary life.

He’s free like Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider — there’s something of the counterculture about him (but he would hate that). But he’s not an anti-hero, that’s for sure. He is not immobilised by guilt, confused about his life, or wrapped up his emotions. He is more of an old fashioned hero in this respect, not much of a talker, like a John Wayne character. He is free of all that emotional baggage — too busy fighting the bad guys.

Who is Reacher?

Reacher is a fictional hero with contemporary and classical traits. He’s selfless, helping others, exposing lies and injustice. He’s not materialistic and has no interest in getting rich. He is free of society’s ills — greed, vanity, and bullshit.

2020–05–30


‘Reacher Said Nothing’

Having completed my tour of post-apocalyptic fiction this year, I’m moving to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels (the first person ones).

To accompany this new thematic ‘season’, I spotted Andy Martin’s, Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. I’m a little sceptical of books about writers — but, to be honest, I’m also just a little bit fascinated.

I don’t see interviews with writers, or books about them, as holy manuscripts brought down from the top of a mountain, but I’ve got to admit it — they do make me curious. Part of it is learning about the mindset that’s produced a book or a series of books. Another part of it is knowing about their little writing rituals. I don’t know how much it reveals, but it’s still interesting. Those old interviews in The Paris Review were great, especially the intro sections which described the writer’s desk, his or her writing environment, and working process. Sadly, they’ve been replaced with photos, usually quite mundane ones.

Reacher Said Nothing has enough insights and silly facts about Lee Child to make the book worth reading, but it goes off-piste in the middle, on its own tongue-in-cheek journey.

The main takeaway from the book is that Lee Child is a pro. He sits down at his metal desk and fires up Microsoft Word… and writes.

Lee Child doesn’t plan everything out in advance, which is surprising. He figures most of it out in advance, in his head. If it’s too complicated to retain in memory — it’s too complicated. I was surprised that’s he’s contracted to write novels with 100,000+ words. I’d always assumed they were 80,000+. He also, pretty much, sticks to a first draft (with a few tweaks).

His pen name comes from a combination of a family in-joke about someone’s French accent… ‘the’ pronounced Le, becoming Lee. And Child for childhood innocence, the novels echoing the childhood excitement of a nine year old child, plus the name puts him in a bookshop somewhere between Chandler and Christie. Reacher’s name has it’s own similar family in-joke origins. It’s difficult to know exactly how accurate some of this stuff is, and how much the author and Lee Child are having a bit of a laugh.

Lee Child goes into the writing zone, unshaven, dressed in casual clothes, cereals for breakfast (Sugar Smacks, Sugar Puffs in the UK), toast with marmalade and Stilton or Cheddar for lunch, cereals for dinner (Alpen Original), 25 cups of coffee a day, 26 Camel cigarettes, no text messages, no phone calls. Up at 7.45 in the morning — finishes writing shortly before 10.30 at night. Or so the legend goes…

Lee Child reads a lot, and by a lot I mean, A LOT… 300, or so, books a year. He has good taste and comes across as a someone who, in-spite of his success, still has his feet on the ground.

Success doesn’t just happen, you have to earn it. You need motivation. I wonder how much being fired from Granada TV, all those years ago, back in the 1990s, gave him that?

Time to make that stilton and marmalade sandwich then — see if it is all that it’s cracked up to be.

2020–05–29


Jack Reacher in First Person

I’m reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. To be more precise, I’m reading the ones written in the first person viewpoint: The Enemy, Personal, The Affair, Gone Tomorrow, and Persuader.

I started with the Killing Floor a few years ago (so I’ve done that one), and mistakenly believed that the others had been written in the third person. I’ve read a few of the third person novels including One Shot and Past Tense. The set up at the beginning of One Shot is very well done, and a great example of what a writer can do with the third person that’s impossible with the first person viewpoint.

So, why am I focusing on the first person ones?

I prefer reading novels in the first person viewpoint. I find it more immersive and I like the perspective of being in the protagonist’s head, knowing, and not knowing what they know, or don’t know.

And — maybe — I’m trying to find one I like as much as my favourite, Killing Floor.

The first cold beer at the end of a long hot day is always the best one. The second is never as good. Not even half as good. The same goes for cigarettes. The smoker is forever chasing the buzz they experienced with their first smoke — and never able to fully re-experience.

For me, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor, was that first cold beer at the end of a long day, or that first smoke. You want the same buzz, one more time.

2020–05–28


‘Simple Sabotage Field Manual’

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual is a declassified CIA manual from the Second World War. The aim of the guide is to show how ordinary people, sympathetic to the Allied cause, could damage the Axis war effort using simple, low-tech, non-violent, and easily deniable means. Here are some of the suggestions:

Never pass your skills and experiences to a new or less experienced person.

Apply all regulations to the last letter.

Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.

To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.

When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument.

The manual reflects the industrial nature of the 1940s — literally throwing spanners in the works. Today this would probably be more information and technology based, much of it done through software — spreading misinformation, putting viruses on computer networks, etc. The manual’s language also reflects the sexism of the times, referring to the saboteur as male, which also seems like a lost opportunity in terms of the recruitment of potential saboteurs.

I’m not sure how the document was intended to be used — obviously, being caught in the possession of such a manual would likely have been a death sentence.

Inadvertently, the manual provides the storyteller with a guide to many of the conditions that create a dysfunctional, dystopian environment. By reducing trust and efficiency, and by increasing bureaucracy, the morale of an organisation (the wider society even) can be diminished — simply through the work of a few silent ‘bad actors’.

2020–05–25


‘Damnation Alley’

20th Century Fox had two science fiction films slated for 1977. Their blockbuster ‘A’ project was the post-apocalyptic adventure, Damnation Alley, with another less promising ‘B’ project slated for release later that year.

Jan-Michael Vincent (who was great as the cheeky upstart in 1972s, The Mechanic) took the starring role with George Peppard kicked into second billing (after this fiasco he was destined to go into TV, to lead the A-Team).

Damnation Alley was a career killer of a film that turned toxic for everyone. Like Waterworld it’s one of those spectacularly unsuccessful films that no studio executive wants to remember. Everything that could have gone wrong with it, did go wrong with it.

The storyline is basically a post-apocalyptic RV trip in a custom built Landmaster vehicle (which was supposed to look cool but it looked ridiculous). The vehicle cost the studio $350,000. It’s always a bad sign when the transport takes the starring role. The special effects are pretty bad and they cost the studio a fortune. Someone in a meeting had the terrible idea of rendering every sky in the film into a post-apocalyptic aurora borealis — and it’s completely unnecessary. That decision cost a fortune, but it also stalled the production.

The music is decent enough. It’s Jerry Goldsmith — not his best by any means, but it’s serviceable. It’s a kind of sub Planet of the Apes meets sub Logan’s Run number (he did the music for both of those films, and the soundtrack for Planet of the Apes is pretty spectacular).

While waiting for the special effects, the studio decided to take the film away from the director and recut it themselves. They basically turned it into a film starring the Landmaster vehicle — cutting out much of George Peppard’s screen-time.

Then the studio decided to switch some of the budget for Damnation Alley’s special effects to their other science fiction film, which was progressing ahead of schedule (now it was going to be released before Damnation Alley). When Damnation Alley was eventually released, it was a critical and financial disaster.

The name of 20th Century Fox’s ‘B’ project was, Star Wars.

2020–05–24


‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’

Plan 9 From Outer Space is an independent ‘B’ movie that’s often put in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. It’s one of those films I’ve heard about — with its memorable title — but never seen. Having watched it, I can say that it’s so bad it’s… bad. For a film released in 1959 it feels dated — it’s basically space aliens (dressed as vampires) from outer space… and on a very low budget.

The film begins and ends with a weirdly unblinking narrator talking about the dangers of the future. He is Jeron Criswell King. Criswell performed as a psychic using the stage name, The Amazing Criswell. He came from a family who ran a morgue and he slept in the empty coffins as a child. He took to sleeping in a coffin as an adult.

Criswell had a number of books published. In his 1968, Criswell Predicts: From Now to the Year 2000, he predicted that the US would be attacked by aliens, the country would turn to cannibalism, and Earth would be destroyed in 1999. He also believed in a circular theory of history, where history repeats itself. Like Phillip K Dick, strangely enough, he believed that the US was a kind of latter day reincarnation of the Roman Empire.

Another odd-ball character who appears in the film is Maila Nurmi or Vampira (to use her Hollywood stage name). She’s cast as a female space alien zombie/vampire (with more than a passing resemblance to Disney’s evil Queen in Sleeping Beauty), and there’s Bela Lugosi in the film as well, as if that wasn’t enough.

The dialogue is cheesy, theatrical, and expositional. The film’s special effects are terrible. There’s a scene in a commercial airliner cockpit that’s a wooden box with a calendar on one wall and a couple of semi-circular pieces of wood for the control wheels. It’s really bad, worse than a Flash Gordon episode from wayback in the 1930s.

For 1950s Hollywood science fiction about visiting aliens, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is a much better bet. And, for vampire/zombies, the not particularly great, The Last Man on Earth (1964) is a superior option, although you might as well go straight to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. As for Plan 9 From Outer Space, I wasn’t charmed by its genre-bending take on the craptacular.

2020–05–24


Walls and membership, groups and belonging

At parties, small social groups define themselves by the people they don’t allow in as much as the people they do. Being in a social group implies inclusivity as well as exclusivity.

In the same way, larger groups of people are also defined by who is in and who is out. The citizens of ancient cities constructed walls around them to keep other people out, but those walls also gave them a feeling of belonging to something within those defences.

Societies are defined by their own rules, and special badges of one form and another denoting membership. All these things signify belonging to the group by expressing signs of membership and living within certain boundaries — speaking the language, dressing the right way, behaving the right way, believing the right things.

Boundaries are more than city walls or lines on maps, they are — in a very Wittgensteinian way — interpretations.

Membership of a group or a society comes with special advantages. That’s why people join them. Alternatively people are born into them and there is friction should they wish to leave. Leaving a group can be seen as disloyalty or betrayal. When a group can no longer provide sufficient advantages, people leave it for another one.

So, what does all this have to do with writing stories?

Protagonists are usually trying to: escape from a group, join a group, or cross over from one group to another. There are many reasons for doing this: to get ahead in life, to discover a secret, to sabotage an enemy, to gain status, for material gain, to avoid something, to hide, to evade repression, to get a job, to see the world, to feel more human, to live more honestly, to carry out a mission, be more truthful, to escape lies. These are all character motivations.

The divide between two groups is often a divide between those with power and those without power, or between two groups seeking to dominate the other — competition. Membership implies advantage — those with less seek more. Those in possession of something stop others from possessing it (territory, market access, customers, wealth, knowledge, water, etc). The space between groups represents a divide: a class divide, a taste divide, a behavioural divide, etc. These are the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, between law abiding citizens and people acting illegally, and often between the perception of good and bad.

Protagonists either fight their way out of a group, or they fight their way into one. They begin in the wrong group, or are thrown out of their favoured group (striving to rejoin it, or joining another group to fight against it). A protagonist’s journey involves crossing over into another group, possibly multiple groups, and learning how those new groups work, adapting to their rules and behaviours to achieve his or her goal.

2020–05–18


‘The Hunger Games’

It’s weird to think that The Hunger Games was published in 2008, that’s twelve years ago. Legend has it that Suzanne Collins got the idea for the trilogy while she was channel surfing between a game show and footage of the Iraq war.

Her interest in classical mythology has also influenced the story with the main characters being forced to face a series of trials to test their worthiness.

The story unfolds through the first person, present tense narration of Katniss Everdeen. Her story quickly reveals the hardships and injustice of living in District 12, which exists in a 19th Century-like state where the coal mining industry is the main employer. In comparison to their extreme poverty the elite in the Capitol live idle lives of decadence.

The pre-combat phase of the story is a kind of psychological examination of her resilience as well as being a popularity contest (which feels particularly American). With the support of fellow District 12 ‘tribute’ Peeta, and her mentor Haymitch Abernathy, she manages to muster a renewed sense of self-confidence before entering the combat arena — knowing that her chances of survival are bleak.

The story is a brilliant example of a writer constantly putting the protagonist in harms way leading to a sequence of reversals of fortune. Threats are followed by narrow escapes, and this formula is repeated, again and again. The pattern creates a series of tonal peaks and troughs, tension followed by relief, emotional ups and downs.

The arena itself is a combination of trail by combat and outdoor survival skills (this also feels very American — survivalism and self-reliance in the wilderness). The combat arena isn’t just about physical power and fighting opponents it’s a place where contestants make allies, command respect from potential enemies, and strategically work out their opponents. It’s as much about psychology and people skills.

The story has many of the tropes of Ancient Greek mythology (citizens being sacrificed as tributes, tests, and the spectacle of combat being played out in front of an audience (the Greek gods, and the elite of the Capitol). The Hunger Games is also a retelling of Cinderella. Katniss is the hardworking overlooked girl chosen to transcend her lowly status. Her mentor Haymitch Abernathy is the fairy godmother. He arranges for her to be transformed by wearing her spectacular fire dress. Peeta plays the role of the handsome and chivalric prince. Their time in the combat arena is akin to them dancing at the ball. They get to know one another, find trust and learn to work together. The fairytale roles, especially the interaction between Peeta and Katniss, have been updated and changed to make them more relevant to a contemporary YA audience.

When I read The Hunger Games, I didn’t feel like I had to compensate for the fact that it is a YA novel intended for a YA audience. I was simply reading a gripping and addictive story. The reader’s empathy for Katniss — her childhood hardship, her sad and deprived family background, and her self-sacrifice — makes the reader root for her later on in the arena. She bravely copes with her situation, exhibiting personal strength, and humility. She’s vulnerable but never weak. This makes her a protagonist who’s easy to empathise with.

2020–05–17


‘Skin’

Liam Brown’s 2019 novel Skin has weird similarities to the current Covid-19 lockdown, but the situation in this story is far more extreme — an existential threat to humanity. Families are self-isolating from the world, and from each other, forced into their bedrooms and onto the web. Living in the same house, but emotionally worlds apart.

The novel opens with a government warning that’s scarily like the one the government sent to UK mobile phones. From that opening, the story moves back and forth in time, alternating between the moment the pandemic hit, to the present (four years later) when the military are enforcing the quarantine.

The quarantine in Skin has become the ‘new normal’. The state has reorganised itself into a faceless authority focused around human survival based on the military and government medical services. Angela and her family live in their rooms, self-isolating, spending their time on the internet, going to school on the internet, no longer communicating with one an other. And yet they’re safe, fed by government food drops to the house, and both of them are working online. They are the lucky ones.

Life in the house is a kind of 21 Century family version of I am legend. In the midst of the self-isolating lifestyle all is not well. Angela is estranged from Colin even though they live only one room apart. Colin’s focus is on his job, virtual reality, and online VR sex clubs. The daughter, Amber spends her time on her running machine, pandering after her ex-boyfriend that she can no longer meet. The son, Charlie is eating himself to death, playing computer games, and maliciously hacking into other peoples’ computers.

Angela is part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. She sees it as one of the last vestiges of the local community (although in reality it’s little more than a government snooping scheme). One day, walking around her desolate neighbourhood on a routine patrol, wearing a hazmat suit, she returns home and replays her video report when she becomes convinced that she’s seen a figure in a shadow, someone watching her.

The story feels like it was written with the hindsight and experience of the 2020 lockdown, but it was published last year. Angela is a great character with sufficient depth and likability to carry the story from her point of view. The naturalistic tone of her narration makes for a captivating, easy reading experience.

Four years into self-isolation and just being alive feels like a victory when so many others have perished. But, the effects of a strict self-isolation are weighing heavy on the family.

2020–05–17


You’re the critic

When a person is browsing for a book in a bookstore or when he or she is reading a novel — they are the critic. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know what ‘good’ writing is, if they know nothing about writing theory, or the history of Literature, they make their own judgement and, qualified or unqualified, it’s their opinion that matters.

But, the chances are — even though most people people might not realise it themselves — they bring to any story critical judgements. They don’t want to read a story that bores or offends them, or something that confuses them and doesn’t make any sense. They want to feel entertained and maybe enlightened, challenged or just have a fun read.

Even a non-expert reader who isn’t ‘informed’ about the craft of storytelling intuitively knows if something is or isn’t working for them. They know if a story feels tense or not, if they’re rooting for a character to win, or they’re uninvolved. They know if they feel bored. Boredom is the biggest and most likely reason why a reader never starts, or quickly gives up on a story.

You, me, anyone who reads a book, or watches a film, is the critic. Our opinion counts. Outside of a classroom, we don’t need to justify why we like one thing and dislike another. A lot of personal preferences are not rigorously thought out as part of an intellectual exercise — they work intuitively, mostly on a semi-conscious level. They are whims and fleeting feelings.

What does this mean for the writer? It means, think like an ordinary reader — appreciate how they’re likely to judge your story. Sometimes over-thinking a problem is as dangerous as under-thinking it. And, whatever you do, don’t be boring.

2020–05–13


Notepads, blogging, minimalism, web design, and ideas

On and off from 2000, I kept an offline digital journal using the Psion Database app on EPOC 5 OS, followed by a note-taking app on the Palm Pilot (in combination with a fold-up keyboard). The journal was my personal notepad. I used it to capture ideas and thoughts about my writing and the writing process. My existing blog still does pretty much the same thing (it is also a journal of the films I’m watching).

In 2007 I became interested in publishing my notes to the web. The idea was that — by making them public — it would force me to be more disciplined. Some people like to put their notes in a beautiful leather-bound notebook and write with a nice ink pen or a special pencil made in Germany, I wanted to put my notes in a nicely designed website.

Already, by that stage I was getting fed up with social media and I didn’t want to to use a service like Blogger. I wanted my content in a CMS that I controlled, hosted on my own web space. That was when I discovered Wordpress.

There were other platforms out there but a self-hosted Wordpress site offered the right combination of flexibility customisability — and the CMS was free. What I liked about Wordpress was that it focused on the content creator (the authoring backend was, and probably still is, one of the best out there). It’s a hugely successful platform. Over a third of the web is made up of Wordpress sites. There were some great themes too and people were giving them away for free, directly from their websites.

I’ve had my own websites, hand crafted from HTML, before and since, but they’ve always been a pain to use in practice. A CMS that’s specifically built for blogging makes things a lot faster and easier.


In 2007 the kind of aesthetic refinements that had been around for a long time in magazine design were creeping into web design. This trend has continued as bandwidth has increased and screen sizes have dramatically increased (as well as, paradoxically, grown physically smaller with mobile phones). As the technology has changed, websites have evolved. People learned to scroll, and webpages got longer. ‘Mobile first’ websites became ubiquitous and responsive web design.

Images increased in size and then they went smaller. Video seemed like the answer for a while but it followed a similar journey to images. With content and design there is always a balance. What you gain with one thing — you also lose with another. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. These things go in circles, and fashions, chasing ever-changing purposes and ends. As user expectations have increased it has became impossible to envisage websites, especially professional ones, without a defined content strategy. Websites are conversations — they are a way of communicating.


I started out using other people’s Wordpress themes and then I used bare bones themes that had been specifically designed to be customised, themes like Simplest and Blank Slate. There were some solid standbys like Veryplaintxt, and later Information Architects Wordpress Theme 4, which fulfilled my desire for simplicity and a text-based layout. The aspiration was always to bring magazine and book layout qualities — that kind of attention to detail — into web design. Some people like to knit or play Solitaire, I find it relaxing to mess around with CSS and tweak websites.

Over time, people experimented with ways of doing different things to the standard cascading waterfall of news items that’s become synonymous with the blog format. In the wider world blogs with large audiences have been bought up by large media corporations and turned into online magazines. It’s big business, and it has been for some time.

Along the way, Wordpress has also gone from being a fun and lean tool for writing in, to being a powerful but also somewhat bloated platform for personal use. It’s no longer as simple as it once was. And that’s why I started looking around for alternatives.

Medium felt too much like another version of Blogger but with nicer design. Tumblr had its moment but then Yahoo took it over and… well, the rest is history. Squarespace offers a Wordpress-like experience without the crap of having to deal with Wordpress.com or having to host your own website and manage updates and plugins. I used it for a while, but I prefer the control of having my own hosted webspace.

A self-hosted Wordpress installation comes with the hassle of managing the theme layer with a database. Flat file system websites have an inherent advantage in terms of speed and simplicity by not having to query a database. I’m currently using Kirby CMS. It’s an elegant CMS that’s fun to use. There are some great themes available for it. Manu Moreale’s ‘Blog Theme 1’ is a good example. And there are a number of themes that provide an easy starting point to customise your own theme.

I enjoy visiting beautifully designed websites. I enjoy simplicity (which isn’t quite the same thing as minimalism, but there’s a clear overlap). There’s also a big overlap between simplicity and a great user experience. I enjoy the focused presentation of book style typographic layouts. And, yes, I still enjoy developing my hazy thoughts into something more focused, by writing blog posts.

2020–05–11


‘12 Monkeys’

I remember seeing 12 Monkeys in February 1996 at the old Guildford Odeon. The cinema was in an Art Deco building at the top of the High Street (the Upper High Street to give it its actual name). The old Guildford Odeon had originally opened to the public in 1935.

When I was there in 1996, for 12 Monkeys, I noticed that the cinema looked shabby. It was a time when people could still smoke in a cinema (the ban on smoking in public places became law in 2007). I didn’t know it at the time, but the cinema had been slated for closure, which it did on the 8th December 1996. The building was demolished in 2002.

I was really looking forward to seeing the film. The film’s promotional campaign had struck me as being remarkable, the surreal images of wild animals walking through an empty cityscape, and the strange time travelling theme — it seemed pretty fascinating.

When the credits rolled at the. End of the film, I left feeling underwhelmed. The film didn’t quite work for me. Where all the ingredients had magically come together in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), the same thing hadn’t happened with 12 Monkeys. It was lost somewhere in-between an art house production and a genre action flick. It had a screenplay by David Peoples (who wrote Blade Runner and Unforgiven) but it was delivered by Bruce Wills (who does comic nonchalant) being asked to do fraught emotional (which he doesn’t do). If only they’d just asked him to do his usual Bruce Willis thing. The underground world (a future dystopia) had the kooky retro-futuristic aesthetic of Brazil (which added so much to that film’s darkly comic tone), but here, it felt out of place.

Rewatching 12 Monkeys has left me with exactly the same feeling of disappointment. James Cole’s exploration of the post-apocalyptic surface was full of great imagery (which had been used to great effect to promote the film) but the rest of it was slow, unconvincing, and didn’t gel.

2020–05–10


Surprise Vs suspense

Another thing that got me thinking about Season 3 of Westworld was that the storytelling was setup for a series of dramatic reveals. The problem was that without feeling engaged with any of the characters (because insufficient time had been given to their emotional world and/or none of them was really likeable) it was hard to care. The dramatic reversals and revelations fell flat.

One of the striking things about genre fiction is the efficient way in which writers literally tell us why we should empathise with the main character… because they were treated unfairly, because they experienced injustice, because they struggled while others found life easy, because they were a woman in a man’s world, because they did not fit in, etc. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an outstanding example of this — if you don’t feel for Jane in the first two chapters, there’s something wrong with you.

The problem for the writer is that he or she has to make choices about how much they reveal about a character or the situation they’re in. What’s more interesting — the surprise of a reveal, or the audience knowing that different characters have conflicting objectives and watching those conflicts play out?

2020–05–10


Stakes (and limitations)

I’ve been thinking about stakes and limitations in storytelling. High stakes are the terrible consequences of failure. Failure is something to fear. In a low stakes world there is little to fear and thus little tension.

Limitations placed on a character ensures that he or she has a flaw or weakness, when they might otherwise be unbeatable. This is especially true with fantasy characters with magical powers, monsters, robots, and superheroes.

I got thinking about this after watching Season 3 of Westworld, and figuring out what made me so disappointed. One of the big things, for me, was that characters could die and come back to life. There was no jeopardy anymore. A dead character (one of the ‘host’ androids) could download into a new body, or even clone themselves into multiple copies. Without the danger of a palpable threat there’s no fear of mortality — without high enough stakes there’s no tension.

That’s why when a character has special powers (downloading into a new body, magic spells, superhuman strength, or whatever) their ability has to come with a clear limitation. This makes it possible for the antagonist to dishonourably ‘cheat’, and circumvent their special advantage. This makes the protagonist vulnerable. A vulnerable character is more human. That’s why even the all-powerful Superman becomes a weakling when he’s exposed to Kryptonite. Without a weakness there’s no storytelling dynamic — too much weakness and the character becomes annoying.

2020–05–10


‘Turbo Kid’

Turbo Kid (2015) is probably the bloodiest film I’ve ever seen (followed by Mandy, 2018). It’s a homage to the kind of 80s ‘video nasty’ that I used to hire from the local video store when I was at school. Somehow, I managed to rent them out unchallenged, even though I wasn’t technically old enough to hire X’ rated movies (as they were then designated). Anything less than an ‘X’ rated film seemed… pointless. At the time, there was a kind of connoisseurship of horror film video special effects with realism taking the prestigious top slot. How my tastes have changed over the years!

The violence in Turbo Kid is comic-book with ridiculous levels of spurting blood and dismembering. The film is a weird mishmash of retro-nostalgia with its cheesy 1980s music, blood-fest gore, and sentimental boy meets girl storyline. The alternate ‘future’ 1997 is a nod to ET and Power Rangers. The characters go around on push bikes, even the baddies (who resemble every cliché of characters from an old Max Max film) have pimped push bikes.

2020–05–10


‘A Boy and His Dog’

Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog (1969) is written like a modern-day Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that’s set in a dystopian alternative reality future — but Vic’s post-apocalyptic world is aimed at an adult audience.

Vic is a young adult who roams about a post-apocalyptic desert landscape after World War 4, a devastating nuclear conflict. Vic is a feral teenager. The roles are swapped in this story with his dog, Blood, being the older, wiser, one of the two and Vic taking on the role of the instinctive creature led by sexual gratification and hunger.

Blood is the product of genetic experimentation, the fusion of dolphin and canine genes, which has produced a telepathic dog. Vic and Blood are able to converse telepathically.

In this vision of the future, Vic is amoral, scavenging and pillaging for survival, routinely killing anyone who gets in his way, and raping any girls that Blood can find for him. Vic considers his treatment of girls better than other ‘Solos’ because he’s not sadistic.

Beneath the apocalyptic landscape, the middle-class live in underground towns leading an ersatz small town existence. Vic despises the ‘down under’ people and their polite society. He is literally a ‘wild man’ (who lives without any concept of civilised society).

The delinquent teenager was a popular subject in mid twentieth century fiction, including mainstream TV dramas like Star Trek. These stories featured wild teenagers who lacked the respect and work ethic of their parent’s generation and who were unable to function within society. In the future world of Logan’s Run (1967), for example, gangs of feral kids lurk around the dilapidated edge of the city.

A Boy and His Dog is a simple story. There’s no sense of an underpinning philosophy, it’s just a simple what if… scenario. What if, after an apocalyptic war all concept of a society and civilisation has broken down.
 Harlan Ellison was a prolific writer (he worked in a number of different genres and wrote screenplays for TV). A sequel to the novella was published and a further sequel, A Girl and A Dog, was planned but it was never completed.

The 1976 independent film of the book follows the novella and it has the same twist at the end (although Harlan Ellison hated the closing line of dialogue in the film).

Vic meets Quilla June Holmes but his feral nature and lack of morality precludes him from being able to form a relationship with anyone (apart from Blood, who he depends on to find food).
 The ending of A Boy and His Dog is impossible to discuss without giving away what happens, which I don’t want to do.

I used to find Vic’s behaviour troubling, but now I see him as a fictional construct, there to illustrate the ideas behind the story. Quilla June Holmes is easier to empathise with and in some ways she’s the entry point from our world into this dystopian landscape. Here she is, quite early on, asking Vic about love, and his reply is clear:

‘Have you ever been in love?’ ‘What?’ ‘In love? Have you ever been in love with a girl?’ ‘Well, I damn well guess I haven’t!’ ‘Do you know what love is?’ ‘Sure. I guess I do.’ ‘But if you’ve never been in love…?’ ‘Don’t be dumb. I mean, I’ve never had a bullet in the head, and I know I wouldn’t like it.’

As a reader, I felt detached from the characters. Vic’s behaviour is disturbing and Quilla June Holmes is too passive to really identify with. The novella occupies a strange space between young adult tropes (the animal companion story, the young adult against the world)… and its shocking adult content. In spite of this, the language, at least from a technical standpoint, makes for a remarkably smooth reading experience.

2020–05–10


The lockdown haircut

My hair had grown increasingly long, even before the lockdown. I’d already ignored a bunch of unsubtle hints from the wife. Are you growing your hair? It’s… really… long… followed by a stare.

I thought I was owning the longer hair look. Well, kind of. Ok. Not really at all. But if you have an imagination you can persuade yourself that unkempt is the new natural. After all, this is the lockdown — no one out there’s bothering to shave or get out of their pyjamas for that SEO Zoom meeting. Well, I wasn’t. So this weirdness that we’re in, it’s the new normal.

Lockdown… There’s that word again. ‘Lockdown’ feels like it needs to be said in one of those ridiculous Hollywood voices used to promote action films, and spoken with booming music in the background. Everything’s strange now, because we’re living in a made for Netflix sci-fi movie. It was the strangest of times. It was the most normal of times…

So, there I was, well overdue for a haircut, and I couldn’t even leave the house. I’d had enough of being Shaggy from Scooby Doo. I was time for a lockdown haircut, which means a DIY buzzcut. I’ve done this before, but this was the first time I’d attempted it with a beard trimmer on half charge (which didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence). I had visions of getting the job half done — not the best kind of look. But, hey, it’s the lockdown, huh? I get out of the house once a day to go for a walk with my daughter in the park. I can wear a baseball hat if it’s that bad, can’t I?

While I sat in front of the mirror I suddenly realised I had an audience behind me, the wife and daughter, eagerly anticipating the spectacle of a man shaving his own head with a half-charged device designed to maintain stubble at a permanent 3 o’clock shadow (not shave a wild mop of hair). Of course, I was pleased to provide this free entertainment for them at no charge, and I was happy that everyone else was enjoying themselves. It’s my job, to entertain.

They left half way through (these kinds of things always take longer than expected) and when I emerged in the kitchen I was greeted by two stunned faces. My daughter observed that, Daddy’s hair’s gone! Which was a fair assessment. I asked she if she liked it, and she told me that she did. This wasn’t a surprise because after I’d shaved a central stripe down my head, and joked that it was finished, I asked her what she thought of it — and she said that she liked it. She’s not even three, and she knows which side of the bread is buttered.

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and have that WTF! reaction — who’s that? Oh… it’s me. Sometimes it looks quite severe, and I wonder if I’m capable of owning a US Marines buzzcut, but mostly it just looks like very short hair.

So now I look like Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys, which is weird because the last time I had a hair reboot like this (about five years ago) I looked like THX 1138 from the film THX 1138. The buzzcut is fitting somehow, as I walk to Tesco’s Express at 7.30 in the morning to buy food — there’s no one around, no cars on the road, complete silence… it really does feel like 12 Monkeys.

2020–05–03


The coffee shop analogy

Phillip Lord’s coffee shop analogy in his 23rd October 2012 blog post Why academic publishing is like a coffee shop is one of my standout blog posts from the 2010s. The post is about the rituals of academic publishing which have a Gormenghast-like element of statue polishing about them.

Drinking coffee in Italy is a quite different experience from drinking coffee in many UK coffee shops. In Italy, first you go into a bar — “bar” in Italian doesn’t really have a direct translation into English, as it’s not the same thing as British pub, although they do have large and impressive counters — the bar itself. The person behind the bar is called a barista, which is Italian for “barman”. The barman is normally casually dressed. Assuming you want a coffee rather than food, you ask for a coffee in Italian which is, of course, the local language. The barman will turn around, fiddle with the coffee machine for a moment or two, give you a coffee and then take the 1 euro or so that is the normal charge. Most people drink this at the bar, without sitting down.

In the UK, you enter the coffee shop experience; the shops are often quite large, and involve sofas. The shop assistant is not a shop assistant but a “barista” which is not English. Baristas are, of course, trained and have the stars on their name badge to show it. You will ask for what you want, which you will describe also not in English, such as a “skinny, grande latte” which is Italian for, well, actually very little. The barista will fiddle with their machines for several minutes — thump, thump, thump to clean the old grounds, tsch, tsch, tsch to create the new, clunk, clunk clunk — pssssss, ahhhh. The coffee will then be served, often with a sprinkle of chocolate patterned with a pleasing corporate logo. You will give them the 3 pounds which is the normal charge. They will stamp your loyalty card.

The coffee will fail notably to taste any better than in Italy.

The reason for all of this fuss is called market segmentation: in the UK, coffee is a luxury experience; in Italy, it is a drink. You need all of this additional fuss to validate the price that you are paying; otherwise, you would feel like you were being ripped off. The irony, of course, is that the fuss does cost to provide, so then the price goes up even more. In the UK, I rarely drink coffee, which is a pity as a coffee (or espresso as we like to call it here) is quite nice in the morning.

I think that he’s being a bit too generous about the quality of British coffee, but anyway.

What I think is so great about this piece is that it highlights the prevailing nonsense inherent in so much of modern consumerism with marketing clichés like ‘adding value’ and creating ‘experiences’. Westerners have become locked into these ways of comprehending the world. I’m not against marketing per se, but I do wonder how healthy this will be for society in the longer term.

For example, why do shoppers want a worker in shop who’s paid to stand at the door to smile at them when they enter the shop, as if the worker is welcoming in a family member? Sure, it helps to create the impression of a friendly environment (where you can spend your money) but it’s not ‘real’. Are the lives of shoppers so lonely and empty that they they need this kind of self-affirmation and fake warmth? Maybe. Maybe not. What I can say for sure is that the world we live in has become very Philip K Dick all of a sudden.

2020–05–01


‘The Maze Runner’

James Dashner’s, The Maze Runner was published in 2009 as the first part of The Maze Runner trilogy, with two prequels later being published after the trilogy. The writing has that snappy Young Adult fiction style that’s easy to read, no excess fat as it were, and populated with characters who express their conflicting emotions in the face of a dysfunctional adult world — plus, there’s plenty of action. The Maze Runner is, in part, a good old mystery yarn combined with a prison break story.

While Young Adult fiction never went away exactly, it took on a new mainstream significance with the success of J K Rowling’s, The Philosopher’s Stone (1997). The collapse of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 came in parallel to mergers and acquisitions in the publishing industry, the trend towards the commodification of books, the rise of non-traditional bookstores like supermarkets and Amazon, and the relative decline in the visibility of Literary Fiction.

By 2009 — when The Maze Runner was published — the Young Adult hero had usurped the Literary Fiction hero in terms of public consciousness. The new Young Adult hero was a genre hero, in contrast to the seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield in J D Salinger’s classic 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, which featured a literary fiction type of hero.

The Maze Runner (2009) is part of the wave of Young Adult fiction that followed Harry Potter. Suzanne Collins’, The Hunger Games, and Patrick Ness’s, The Knife of Never Letting Go were published the year before, in 2008. Veronica Roth’s, Divergent was published two years later, in 2011.

Where the Harry Potter series was fantasy fiction, the following wave of Young Adult fiction had a strong science fiction contingent, with many of them taking place in a future dystopia and often expressing a feminist viewpoint through the characters and narratives.

The Maze Runner, like the others, seems almost conceived from the outset to work cinematically. The novel ticks the basic storytelling essentials, starting with some great initial ‘hooks’ that ask questions without immediately offering answers (to retain the reader’s interest). Who are the people in the maze? Why are they in a maze? What is the maze for? Plus a strong motive — to find out why they’re in the maze and how to escape from it. The Maze Runner is an enjoyable read and there’s a lot to be learned from this kind of storytelling.

2020–04–29


‘The Warehouse’

The Warehouse is a 2019 novel by Rob Hart where three characters collide in a dystopian near-future America dominated by an Orwellian global corporation called, Cloud.

The novel[1] sets up the three main characters proficiently, Gibson Wells is the charismatic, slick talking, self-promotional, storytelling owner of Cloud. In his creepy blog posts and video addresses he talks about the value that Cloud adds to American society, and his family values. Zinnia is a tough industrial spy and she’s been tasked with infiltrating the organisation to discover its secret sauce. Paxton used to own a small company that was bankrupted by Cloud’s aggressive supplier cost cutting and use of patents to monopolise its position.

The America of the future is a grim place where the infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and global warming has transformed most of the country into an arid semi-desert resembling the dustbowl of the 1930s. Government has grown smaller to become non-existent, effectively being replaced by Cloud. Anything that can be deregulated has been opened up to the free market (mostly due to Cloud’s pressure). Cloud is an Amazon-like mega-business, one of the last employers in the US.

What is the secret of Cloud’s success? Why are they so security obsessed? Will Zinnia learn the truth? Where will Paxton’s loyalties lead him — to help her, or to stop her?

The Warehouse is an enjoyable bestseller-type read that’s frighteningly plausible. It’s also an intelligent novel that deliberately reigns in the action to explore the psychological motivations behind each of the three main characters. Recently, I’ve been thinking about science fiction as literary fiction, and this goes in the other direction, investing depth and psychological context into a mainstream genre novel. In some ways this is possibly harder to pull off because the writer is working against reader expectations (more depth and psychology equates with less action). Instead of being solely about guns and fist fights, The Warehouse also asks a big question — is Cloud’s Big Brother-like power benefiting America, or itself?

[1] To be more accurate, I listened to the Audible audiobook — the performances by Emily Woo Zeller, Karissa Vacker, Jason Culp are excellent, I also read sections of the ebook.

2020–04–28


Total information

One of the popular themes in contemporary science fiction is the idea that the mass collection of information — a kind of super-Googleization — will be used to predict human behaviour. To some extent this already happens.

In the Westworld TV series (Season 3), the surveillance society and the collection of mass information is used to predict human behaviour (including life-changing decisions), in order to control society. This raises the question of individual free will being the primary determining factor in people’s lives — if a person’s thoughts are predictable, how free are they? Do people make their own choices?

This ties in with the overarching theme in Westworld of the android hosts being on predetermined behavioural loops, and having scripted responses to situations. In other words they lack free will. Now, it’s revealed, citizens also lack real choice in their lives as they too are, in a sense, on predictable loops.

The ability of characters to make free choices is important in storytelling. It’s part of a character’s journey, and it demonstrates their values and ability to learn. Having choices and making decisions is a basic human expression — a vital characteristic of being a free individual.

It’s also why the reader or audience sticks with a story, as they wait for a character they empathise with to make the right choices — or to lever themselves into a position from which they can enact a decision.

2020–04–27


‘A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World’

In C A Fletcher’s, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World (2019), Griz lives on the island of Mingulay, off the West coast of Scotland, with his family and two dogs. It’s been a while since the world has gone through the Gelding, which reduced fertility rates to one person in a million, resulting in a global catastrophe (whose cause is unknown) and the sea levels have risen due to global warming.

Griz lives with his family (or what’s left of his family) on the island, their closest neighbours live a fair distance away on another island. After a family trauma, the family manage to get by, while Griz entertains himself by reading from his secret stash of books from the old world, which includes a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, and Walter M Miller’s, A Canticle for Leibowitz. He addresses the imaginary reader of his journal — a person from the old world, now long dead (the reader).

Then, one day, a stranger arrives…

It’s difficult to talk about the novel without giving away the plot. What I can say is that this is an adventure following in the long tradition of animal companion stories.

C A Fletcher does a great job with the world building. The drama is revealed through Griz’s journal, which is mostly told rather than shown. There are regular tantalisingly cryptic asides about what’s going to happen later on in the story, and the narrative often preempts the dramatic moments that are about to occur only a few paragraphs later. As a writer I found that weirdly intriguing, just from a technical standpoint.

The novel has many Young Adult fiction tropes (the rite of passage, the young person against the world) although it’s marketed as a story for adults. It also follows the mode of a classic adventure story, a quest, a trek, a journey to a place. There’s a couple of big plot twists towards the end, which I didn’t see coming. Having read this I’m curious to see what C A Fletcher comes up with next. Something like this again, or something completely different?

2020–04–26


Scarves, veils, and other female head garments

Back in the 1950s men wore hats and women wore hats or scarves. A head scarf was the normal thing for a woman to wear outside of the house and it had certain advantages, it could be worn on a quick trip out to buy milk without a need to tidy one’s hair, and it protected a woman’s hair from the rain and breeze. A woman wearing a scarf was completely unexceptional. Women used scarves like men wore ties to add an individual signature to their wardrobe. Nuns also traditionally covered their hair and no one thought anything of it.

In the 1960s there was a swing towards youth fashion and the scarf began to fall out of fashion as did men wearing hats and City gents wearing a bowler hat to and from work. It was a time of change and of modernisation. The newly liberated woman didn’t need to cover her hair, she could flaunt it, and enjoy it because it was her hair to do as she pleased with it.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Russians saw themselves as the leading edge of civilisation. They were an enlightened group. The Soviet Union was fighting against a morally corrupt and decadent West. It was founded on rational logic and a science-based world view. It was fighting against the injustice of late imperialism, and the exploitation inherent in free-market capitalism, fighting for female emancipation, for free education for all, and so on.

The Soviet Union came up against a living version of the ‘past’, a repressive ‘medieval’ tribal based theocracy (which the West supported). While Afghanistan had a sophisticated urban culture in the large cities, many of its rural communities were traditional based tribal cultures where there was little education and women were treated as property, punished for sorcery, and had few of the rights enjoyed by women in the West.

This clash of cultures between and different worlds played out like a science fiction narrative — the enlightened Russians (as they saw themselves) were in the eyes of many tribal Afghans invaders who were hostile to their traditional culture and ways. The traditional practice of women covering their heads and faces was seen as a sign of ‘backwardness’ by the outsiders. They viewed it as a symbol of the many injustices perpetuated against women. With the West’s support of the Mujahideen, the Soviet Union attempt to control Afghanistan was thwarted and eventually the Soviet Union collapsed.

Meanwhile, in the West, fashion and feminism was progressing further. Then, gradually, Muslim women mostly of parents who had emigrated to the UK, began to cover their heads and sometimes their faces. Whereas this used to be associated with the repression of women it now signified a new post Iranian Revolution mindset of Islamic cultural identity. Covering the head and face was no longer viewed as a sign of female repression but a sign of personal freedom and individual choice. Today most ‘Western’ women don’t wears scarves or cover their heads and faces, but Muslim women do. It’s become a sign of religious identity.

The covering of the face used to incite fear in Western culture because it has traditionally been used by outsiders and criminals to conceal their identity (bandits, highway robbers, bank robbers, and frightening groups like the KKK). The West has been a culture where people shook hands and showed their faces to one another as a sign that they were not hostile, and that they could be trusted. Could the weight of this cultural bias change after the Coronavirus pandemic?

It’s slightly weird that something as simple as a piece of clothing that covers a woman’s head is so suffused with symbolism, political connotations, personal and group identities, and issues about individual choice — and yet women’s clothing has always been politicised… from time long before British women themselves wore scarves, which itself wasn’t all that long ago.

2020–04–25


Science fiction genre as literary fiction

Science fiction offers a lot of flexibility for a writer — it can work at the level of salacious titillation, popular mainstream adventure, as a highly intellectualised story form, as a didactic, a satire, and as literary fiction with time travel and robots.

The real question is one of tone. And the tone relates to how ‘high’ or ‘low’ you want to pitch the story. How entertaining (action packed), or how intellectually satisfying should it be?

The tone is how you tell the story and it’s just as critical to the success of a story as the way a comedian tells a joke. The pitch is where the writer wants the story be be positioned along a line between entertaining and thought provoking. The critical final question is — how do you achieve this without confusing the reader?

The idea of an ‘intelligent blockbuster’ has been around for a while but it’s usually applied to contemporary films. I’ve heard it being used in conjunction with Christopher Nolan’s films like Batman Begins, Inception and Interstellar. It represents a kind of backlash against the ‘dumb’ blockbusters with big explosions and booming, thumping sounds, films like Transformers and Pearl Harbour (the kind of films designed to appeal to fourteen-year-olds). In some ways, the ‘intelligent blockbuster’ is a return to the original blockbuster format offered by films like Jaws and Star Wars.

What’s the ‘intelligent blockbuster’ version of a science fiction novel?

You could argue that all books are ‘intelligent’ because they require more input from the reader in terms of their imagination, interpretation, and comprehension skills. These are skills that watching a film possibly doesn’t offer in quite the same way.

Using the language of film, movies can easily pivot from comedy to tragedy, just through the visual storytelling (the environmental clues, the actors’ reactions, and the film score). While it’s also possible to do this with fiction, I think it’s harder to pull off. Film can literally cut from one thing to another and feel continuous — from light hearted to a menacing tone, from realistic to fantastic.

It’s harder to pivot like that in a novel without creating a jarring reading experience. Of course, a writer can do anything in a novel, technically — but chopping and changing like that can easily confuse or annoy the reader. That’s probably why controlling the pace of a novel is a clear display of a sophisticated writer (something we all aspire to be).

Novels like Ian Ian McEwan’s, Machines Like Me (which is a literary fiction novel that uses science fiction tropes) and Ursula K Le Guin’s, The Left Hand of Darkness (which works within genre expectations to explore cultural politics) both work because they abide by a simple rule. What’s that? They are what they are right from the start without pretending to be something that they’re not. Right from the start, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us is literary fiction, written in a literary fiction ‘style’, by a literary fiction author. It’s not pretending to be anything else and it keeps to its tone — pitching itself as a science fiction plot delivered through a character based literary fiction story. There’s no confusion about what it is. This is what I found challenging about Station Eleven. It begins — consciously or inadvertently — as a post-apocalyptic story and then it turns into a literary fiction novel. The confusion probably comes down to the way the novel’s been marketed as a post-apocalyptic adventure.

Audrey Niffenegger’s, The Time Travellers Wife, straddles the divide between genre plot and character-based literary fiction style by using two first person viewpoints that reflect individual character. John Lanchester’s The Wall uses a simple, cooler, more minimalistic style that’s very proficient at breaking down the protagonist’s thought processes and action sequences. And yet it’s really a novel about tone over action.

The tone is an important part of how you pitch a science fiction story and it’s important to use the language to signal to the reader what kind of story they’re in, so that they don’t feel frustrated or tricked.

2020–04–25


Thoughts on historical fiction

Historical fiction is an imagined world that’s set in the past. Science fiction is usually set in the future. The appeal of historical fiction is the notion that this world actually happened, whereas science fiction will actually happen. So, in many ways, although they are very different, they are related.

With historical fiction the reader gets to experience the world of kings, queens and dukes, wielding power, dressing up in ornate clothes, and strolling around impressive stone buildings. It also has the appeal of a simpler world, a place without text messages and glowing computer screens. It’s also a world where people tend to have have less rights, where raw power rules (and there’s not much in the way of medical or dental care). Battles and fights occur at closer ranges with sharp implements, enemies are stabbed in the back — unlike today’s drone warfare, sniper fire and car bombs where so much of it occurs at a distance.

The past isn’t usually a good place to be poor (and most people were), hence the comparative lack of peasant protagonists. And where there are peasant protagonists they aspire to change things in a very contemporary way, or they are not peasant heroes but the true heirs to the throne who have been denied what is rightfully theirs. In history the ‘heroes’ already had power and status, they were the knights, lords and ladies — and masters or the sons and daughters of knights, lords and ladies. Everyone below them was their servant.

The stakes are usually higher in historical fiction, divorce ends in a beheading, an argument with a person’s boss (a lord or a king) ends with the character being murdered, their property being confiscated, and their family being sent into virtual slavery. Royalty was the original clan-based mafia where power was asserted through brutal violence and where cronyism was a way of life. Success leads to great power, wealth, status, and living in a palace.

So, in storytelling terms, historical fiction offers a compelling world where the stakes are high, the rewards of success are high, and people don’t have a welfare state to fall back on or a police force to call up for help — individuals have to rely on themselves.

2020–04–25


Models of time in storytelling

‘Bullet time’ goes back to the film The Matrix with its slow-motion image capture techniques that used multiple cameras to simultaneously record the same moment from a shifting viewpoint. Tobias Wolff’s short story, Bullet in the Brain (1995) achieved the same kind of effect by using words to slow down time.

Time is a sequence of ‘bullet time’ moments most of which go unnoticed in the flow of the conscious present. The conscious present is probably the most immediate model of time in storytelling because it’s rooted in the senses. It relates to how we perceive the world through the brain’s constructed awareness of the world, through a ‘remembered present’. In writing, this is the present tense where everything is happen-ing, and I’m-ing through an always-experiencing subject. In non-literary terms its the first person shooter viewpoint in computer games and in cinematic terms its camera as the character, see-ing, observes-ing, and do-ing.

The past tense gets a bit of a bad wrap these days because it feels like a has-been in comparison to the filmic ever-present and experiencing-ing world of the always now. We live in the -ing. People often say that the first person present tense feels closer to how the brain works (it’s more ‘real’) — but storytelling isn’t a facsimile of reality, it’s something else. I suppose the common analogy, cliché perhaps, would be to call it a mirror that people can use to help them understand the world. And that’s why the past tense world is better tuned to reflection, to what’s happen-ed.

The ‘it happened in the past’ story reflects on time, usually through a personal experience. I was twenty-three when… or Last year, when I was living in Spain… Time as memory can also work as an extended cultural memory, other peoples’ memories, and group recollections. In this sense history is bigger than ‘I’ or ‘me’, ‘her’ or ‘him’ — it’s about ‘us’ or ‘them’.

The family saga story takes places over multiple generations. These generational stories show change over time (from poverty to wealth, the transference of power and status, empire building, etc). This generational story can be enlarged to include nations, tribes, and other identified groups, to create a sense of time through a group history. In this kind of story the ‘I’ or ‘me’ is too small. This is definitely a past tense and third person ‘him’ or ‘her’ story, and there are probably more than one ‘him’ and ‘her’.

As time scales up in storytelling it goes beyond the immediate senses, beyond individuals and beyond one generation. And yet individual characters can be taken back through time by the smell of a food or hearing a song. Generally though, there’s less and less emphasis on the one person experience and more emphasis on a succession of characters who are contextualised by their predecessors — stories about father and sons, mothers and daughters, mentors and learners, and mafia bosses.

It some point there are more and more generations and it becomes impossible to tell the story of just a single person or a family. Humanity’s importance is dwarfed by the cosmos. This is cosmic time. It’s the biggest kind of story, if it is a human story. It is astrophysics and the story of the universe.

In the film Aniara a spaceship travels through space and time, from the conscious now, into personal memory and generational time, and it culminates with a dawning awareness about the implications of cosmic time.

2020–04–25


When science fiction makes predictions

Back in the 1970s many futurologists believed that robots would be doing most of the work in the future and that people would be leading lives of idle leisure. The reality in 2020 is slightly different — people are having to work longer and longer, often in casual labour schemes, and retiring in their 70s, just to pay the bills. This was one of many examples where futurologists got things wrong.

Science fiction incorporates its own predictions about the future. This is something about the genre that I’ve always found fascinating. For example, John Hackett’s 1982 novel, The Third World War: The Untold Story (a fictional account of a Third World War that’s presented as historical non-fiction) is a mixed-bag of predictions — mainly, as it turns out, wrong ones. Even the insightful ones that came true are usually ‘wrong’ because they happened in different ways, and their significance is different because they produce unexpected outcomes.

The future is unpredictable in unexpected ways. The world has culturally changed and what interests a 1982 mind might not interest a 2020 one. What’s important in 1982 has a different context now. Who in 1982 would have predicted the ‘decline’ of the liberal West and the resurgence of a global Islamic identity, or the rapid rise of China as a strategic threat to US power?

Orwell’s 1984 used a fictional future as a warning to the people in the present. The novel warns about the lies and inherent dangers of a police state, a society controlled by political manipulation of the masses through a state controlled media. It could have been set in the Middle Ages and it would still have made sense. It’s a warning, much like a parable. H G Well’s novels also fall into this category, warning about the dangers of mechanised warfare, and modern science giving people ‘god like’ powers.

In the 1960s and 70s the future was a mixture of optimism and pessimism. There was a world defined by progress (the egalitarian use of technology), as shown in the early Star Trek TV series, where the enlightened fight the ignorant. Then there was the more pessimistic vision, the destruction of the prevailing social order, in films like The Omega Man. Stories about the future need the drama of something that needs fixing or the tragedy of a broken world.

In The Time Machine, the childlike Eloi people of A.D. 802,701 live an idyllic life of carefree fruit-eating, inhabiting decaying futuristic civic buildings. But there is a dark side to their lifestyle.

Philip K Dick’s future world acknowledges the absurd. His genius was that he understood that the future will be a strange place for us here in the present. So, to make his science fiction future more ‘realistic’, he made it more crazy. His idea of the future involved paradigm shifts in meaning and values, a place where almost arbitrary changes shift into a new normal. The future is absurd. The protagonist in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep keeps a pet sheep as a status symbol. That’s nonsensical to us, but it makes complete sense to the protagonist. The people of the future will worry about things that seem inconsequential to us, and they will judge us by things that we deem unimportant.

The rapid change of America from the Obama era to the Trump era can viewed as a temporary blip or as a shift into the absurd. Anyone predicting where America is now, twenty years ago, would have sounded ridiculous. The comedy Idiocracy (2006) seems like a bizarre prediction about the stupidity and absurdities of the future.

The future is a strange place. It’s nonsensical and absurd. It always has been and it always will be. People fight for counties and ideas that cease to exist by the time they’ve grown old. In the science fiction future the meanings and values we hold now will shift in strange and unexpected ways. The only constant, as the ancient Greeks observed, is change.

2020–04–25


‘The Favourite’

The Favourite (2018) takes place in a hierarchical and claustrophobic micro-world of rivalries, power plays, desires and loneliness.

The story takes a historical moment and extrapolates it into fiction. Queen Ann did actually lose 17 children (which must have been truly horrific) and, without a direct heir, she was the last of the Stuart monarchs — but she didn’t keep 17 rabbits as emotional replacements for each of her deceased children, and the film’s speculation about her love life is not based on historical evidence. So, this isn’t a scholarly insight into an area that’s been overlooked by historians — in Hollywood’s own language, it’s a story ‘inspired by real events’, which means, apart from a few key facts, it is basically fiction.

So, while this story is a historical drama, it’s really a fantasy story in a fantasy setting, albeit one that’s loosely based on real historical characters. In this respect it’s similar to films like Braveheart and The Last Emperor — historical fiction.

With this proviso out of the way, The Favourite won me over with its playfulness and energy. It’s quite a bawdy film (that word seems to fit in with its tone, although I’d describe it as crude… in the same way that the TV series Californication is crude with its sex-related humour. Personally, I didn’t mind this and it fits in with the fantasy world of the story.

It’s great to see three leading female characters who are strong but flawed. Instead of being feminist cardboard cutouts, their strength comes from the fact that they’re survivors, women playing women (in more ways than one) and they’re not trying to be men. There isn’t much more tedious than men trying to be ‘Men’, other than perhaps women trying to be ‘Men’ — like the female characters in the Ghostbusters remake. The power games are vaguely reminiscent of Dangers Liaisons, but whereas that was about male versus female power rivalry this is only about women, and as such it presents a very contemporary take on gender politics.

2020–04–23


‘The Wall’

John Lanchester’s, The Wall is a slow burner of a novel that gradually catches up with you to live beyond the immediate reading experience. Its apparent simplicity belies a number of thought-provoking themes and sub-themes.

It’s an allegorical novel set in a dystopian future where ‘defenders’ guard a wall to keep out the ‘others’. The mention of ‘the others’ conjured up Jin-Soo Kwon, one of the Korean character’s in the TV series Lost, where the same term was used. There were quite a few moments in the novel that reminded me of other works of fiction, but I quite like that kind of artistic referencing, deliberate or coincidental.

Most of the details about Britain’s future society, the nitty-gritty details that occurred after the ‘change’, are kept deliberately hazy. From the few clues that can be gleaned, society has become more divided (the better off use domestic ‘helpers’) and the ‘elite’ have become savvy at evading conscription on the wall. This fictional world is a masterclass in the creation of mystery by omitting information.

The first third of the novel poses numerous questions about the world we’re in. At times some of the information appears contradictory. There’s a mention of people eating a lot more root vegetables than before, but pubs are still open, and they have biscuits with their tea. The world is both familiar and strange, but its strangeness isn’t fully explored. When people form couples (to reproduce) they enjoy favourable lifestyles as ‘breeders’. There’s an echo of The Handmaid’s Tale here, although low fertility is a common trope that’s used in science fiction, especially its sub-genres of post-apocalyptic fiction and the eco-dystopia.

This non-specific twilight world with its hazy, allegorical simplification, and heavy symbolism, evokes an almost Old Testament feel. Is science fiction the modern allegory? An allegory of this kind exists in a twilight world, a kind of dusky, foggy dreamscape. Its unreality is reminiscent of a Balthus or Giorgio de Chirico painting. It’s like our world, but not quite. It reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s, Fear and Desire (1953) which takes place in another non-specific world. It evoked old episodes of the Twilight Zone which also existed in vaguely defined alternate realities.

The unreality has a kind of timelessness. Tom Holland noted that the novel could have been set in Roman Britain on Hadrian’s wall. Is John Lanchester saying that nothing’s really changed since Roman Britain? People are still divided by walls and by having identities imposed on them.

Walls are political. They’re about membership, ownership — belonging, and exclusion. The wall has obvious contemporary connotations to Trump’s wall on the US Mexican border to, as he put it, keep out ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’. Economic migrants tend to be looking for work. They’re more likely to end up being fruit pickers and domestic ‘helpers’. While being promoted as a functional object to keep out the unwanted, Trump’s wall is really a symbolic object, a political statement that aspires to redefine ‘America’ and its self-image — to reassure the people within it.

The action sequences are handled well with a slow building tension that becomes palpable. The logical matter-of-fact language (which includes the protagonist’s thought processes) does a great job of detailing events, motivations and reasoning effectively. During these moments, the ratio between the description, between the number of words being used and the amount of time passing swings towards language. This has the effect of slowing down time, which gives the writer time to explore the protagonists disorientation. At other times, the protagonist’s reflective observations possess the self-insight of someone much older than his years might otherwise suggest. His loathing for his parents and what their generation have done to the environment also comes across too much like a dramatic device. Wouldn’t the resentment build up and occur over more than a single teenage generation?

The novel really gets going when a twist is introduced. I would have described it by using another word but I think that might give away too much about the plot, so I’ll just leave it at that. The end is, in some ways, a tad disappointing, although in other respects it fits in with the tone of the story.

The Wall has been criticised for not being as grand or exciting as The Handmaid’s Tale. I think that’s a bit unfair. The Wall is working a slightly different angle, doing its own distinct thing. On another different but related point, there’s a snobbery against stories being set in England. They’re perceived as being less ‘glamorous’ and ‘exciting’ as ones set in North America and being too mundane in comparison to more colourful global locations. There’s a kind of, at best, embarrassment and, at worst, a self-loathing about telling stories about Britain and Britishness, as if they’re somehow inadequate by comparison. Sometimes there’s an underlying feeling that Britain is more comfortable with its period dramas than in speculating about the future.

Tom Holland commented that the story feels derivative. Yes and no. The post-apocalyptic, eco-disaster, and shock dystopian future stories are sub-genres of science fiction. This is exactly the kind of subject that they’re supposed to be dealing with — walls, rising sea levels (post-nuclear landscapes, underground bunkers, robots, AI, medicated societies, police states, etc) — they’re the tropes of these sub-genres. In the same way, crime genre novels often begin with the discovery of a dead body. Crime genre stories are dead body stories, that’s what they are about.

Another key point about this novel is that it’s a science fiction genre story that’s been written as literary fiction. This defines how John Lanchester tells the story — the importance of tone over action, the restraint of his prose style, and the overarching subtlety of his narrative.

2020–04–19


‘Station Eleven’

Station Eleven is a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, published in 2014. It’s a story formed by splicing together a before and an after, a future with a backstory. This device is very apparent in the novel, so much so that it feels like two novellas that have been joined together. One part of its duality lives in the ordinary pre ‘collapse’ world with the other half inhabiting a post-apocalyptic landscape (after a viral outbreak has wreaked havoc on society).

The novel begins with the style of a post-apocalyptic genre story but switches into character-based backstories with a distinctly literary fiction tone. This will delight some, and infuriate others. There are plenty of examples of science fiction written as literary fiction. The issue here is that the novel’s opening (and the book’s marketing) might confuse some readers into thinking that they’re getting something which they’re not. I think the key to writing literary fiction with genre fiction tropes is to make it clear from the opening that the story is primarily a literary fiction one. The obvious example of science fiction as ‘literature’ is 1984, but there are others like, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Machines Like Me. The key thing is not to make your reader feel like they’ve been tricked, and Station Eleven might have passed that line.

The novel is really an exploration of themes and subtexts about the grand myth of the person, ideas about artistic production, and the concept of an artwork being a document of a person’s life. Part of this (yet another duality) is described through the theatrical performance with the other half concerning the production of a graphic novel (from where the novel gets its name). The novel (albeit through an ironic and jokey Star Trek reference) describes the importance of art, and the sense that art makes life worth living.

The post-apocalyptic story is a metaphor for trauma, loss, loneliness, and crushed identities — memories of the old world are lost moments, lost lives, and vanished rituals. The future that’s presented in Station Eleven is one where the large conurbations have collapsed and been replaced by small towns, the new societal epicentre. The old world is linked to the new one by two characters who met during a theatrical production before the ‘collapse’ — now they perform in a travelling theatrical group. One of the small towns they perform in has been taken over by a cult. The threads between the old and new worlds mesh together cleverly but the link is somewhat tenuous and it didn’t really engage me.

After a tight opening setup, one that promises genre style action, Station Eleven defies expectations. This weird dichotomy will either seem like a refreshingly intelligent take on the ‘dumb’ post-apocalypse sub-genre, or the story failing to deliver on its opening promise. If you buy into its somewhat odd duality, you get a well written literary fiction story about loss, and the myth of the person — the potential disconnect between the person’s life and the outcome that supersedes them.

2020–04–12


‘Weapons of Choice’

John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice is an alternate military history science fiction novel published in 2004. Plot-wise it resembles the 1980s film, The Final Countdown, but, where The Final Countdown focused on modern American jet fighters battling Second World War Japanese propeller aircraft, Weapons of Choice explores the social interactions between the military personal from 2021 and the ‘locals’ from 1942. The novel highlights political and social differences between the two groups of fellow ‘Americans’.

The novel (2004) envisages a future naval fleet from 2021, sent back in time — through a freak accident — to the Second World War, initially fighting a US naval fleet in a confused sea battle of mistaken identities. The book could easily have been written today and set in 2041 because much of the military technology is still far off.

The exploration of the cultural differences between the two worlds is intriguing. The ‘locals’ from 1942 see the ‘rocket men’ from the future as aliens. It’s not the advanced technology that shocks the ‘locals’ it’s the fact that the ships from the future are crewed by an ethnically diverse crew that includes women. The ‘locals’ are unable to accept non-whites and women in positions of authority. The visitors from 2021 realise that they will never fit in to the world of 1942, and after the locals riot and two of the visitors from 2021 are murdered, the visitors keep to themselves.

The novel flits about quite effectively, but towards the end it deals more with the wider political and military implications on the outcome of the Second World War. This is a shame because it moves us away from the characters that we care about.


Stories about time travellers going back into history have been around for a while. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for example, was published in 1889. Weapons of choice follows in this long established tradition. Harry Turtledove’s series of novels covered an alien invasion of Earth during the Second World War, and Philip K Dick’s, The Man in The High Castle (which has been turned into a Netflix series) imagines an outcome where the Axis forces were triumphant. Fatherland by Robert Harris is another example. It’s a brilliantly researched ‘page turner’ that’s horrifically believable while also offering a compelling human story. Time travelling stories allow modern characters to enter into a living history. They are about cultural differences as well as technology.


Weapons of Choice is a mainstream battle action alternate history, but its strength comes from its intelligent handling of cultural change, revealed through time travel.

2020–04–10


Thoughts on science fiction

Science fiction has been, and still is, a hugely popular genre that screenwriters constantly go back to. It works especially well in cross-genre stories. Stranger Things, for example, is a cross-genre science fiction and coming of age story. Alien is a science fiction and horror story. THX1138 is a science fiction and a prison break story (where the whole of society is the prison). George Orwell’s 1984 is a science fiction story (about a dystopian future) and a political thriller.

Science fiction transposes today’s fears and dreams into a new version of reality, one that’s usually set in the future, or the near-future. It’s a place with different technologies its own rules and cultures. Historical fiction does much the same thing by speculating on what life must have been like in the past.

The characters may enter an enlightened world with life enhancing technologies, or live in a repressive dystopian system that must be escaped from if the protagonist is to retain his or her humanity.

The space setting often reuses traditional story tropes in new ways: the classical quest, the band of heroes, and the journey through the wilderness (recalling the wagon trek across the old west), the prison break, the revenge story, the sherif in pursuit of outlaws, etc.

The genre often features a vehicle of some kind: a rocket, a spacecraft, a submarine, or a time machine. The spacecraft is a kind of high tech sailing boat with a captain and a crew. They come in different shapes and sizes: old rusty freighters carrying ore from mining planets, dazzling military battleships, and flashy muscle cars driven by rebellious young heroes.

It’s not just about technology — science fiction is also about people coping with new challenges, changes in technology, and the discovery of aliens and new cultures. Science fiction is a sociological fiction as much as technological one. Star Trek is not about warp drives, it’s about people, the crew arguing or getting along with one another, encountering new worlds and different peoples. Babylon 5 is not about a huge spaceport, it’s about migration, politics, human displacement, international relations, and people learning to make a new home.

Science fiction stories work well as what if…? scenarios. The Handmaid’s Tale is: what if we lived in a brutally repressive theocracy that viewed women as baby-making machines? Science fiction lends itself well to this kind of simplification: what if robots become our masters? What if we can travel in time? What if there’s no male or female? What if people lived forever? What if everyone in a society was executed at the age of 21? What if a deadly virus wiped out most of the population?

Science fiction frequently merges with fantasy fiction. Fantasy fiction is another story type that works well as part of a cross-genre package. Science fiction is usually thought of as being about aliens, robots, spacecraft and future cities (the rational), while fantasy is about unicorns, and castles in misty fairytale landscapes (the magical). The Jedi in Star Wars possess the kind of magical powers one might expect from a wizard in a fantasy adventure. And, conversely, there are elements in fantasy stories that are given rational explanations more akin to science fiction. The superhero story is a fusion of science fiction and fantasy.

The science fiction genre scales well. It works as a story about a wandering lone hero travelling through a wilderness (Mad Max, Book of Eli), stories about the village (The Village, Village of the Damned), the town (The Truman Show), the city (Cloverfield), the megalopolis (Judge Dredd), the planet, (War of the Worlds, Planet of the Apes), the galaxy (Star Wars, Flash Gordon).

2020–04–05


I’m reading differently

For the last couple of years I’ve been reading a mixture of spy genre and lit fict. I’d read From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming, followed by Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, then Berlin Game by Len Deighton, and Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. I did realise that I was going through a phase of sorts.

I’d promised myself a while ago that I would catch up on Fleming and Len Deighton. It was something that I wanted to do as a completionist more than anything else. Not that I’m a book completionist — just the opposite really — I’m quite a fussy reader, and easily bored.

Another pattern that’s been emerging over time is that I buy a lot of Kindle eBooks which often sell with the option of buying a heavily discounted audio book version. The two together often sell for less than the RRP of the printed paperback.

I find it easer to analyse the writing when I’m listening to the story. This is probably because my critical thinking isn’t preoccupied with reading the words. It’s a different kind of storytelling experience.

I probably ‘read’ about 50% of books… by listening to them. I used to somewhat ‘look down’ on audio books, but that’s completely changed. There are a lot of really excellent audio books, especially when you get to listen to the author reading their own words. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry, or Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell… it’s like having a private reading in the room with you.

Another weird pattern that’s emerging is that I part read books in ebook form and part listen to the rest as an audiobook. I often re-read something I’ve listened to (to ‘look at the sentences and paragraphs’), or I go in the other direction and listen to a book I’ve read.

This is probably the kind of behaviour publishers’ marketing departments can only dream of. I’m effectively paying twice for the ‘same thing’. Sometimes, I’m paying three times — once more for the paperback, if I like the story enough. There’s something different about a book that I still enjoy, the physicality, ink on paper, thumbing through the pages, the correlation between your progress through the story and the thing itself.

2020–04–04


Experts in the time of COVID-19

While parts of China were in a lockdown in an attempt to contain the Coronavirus outbreak, we were told that it was the response of a repressive police state. Nothing like that could ever happen here in the UK. In any case, the Government, its scientific advisors, and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told us that Coronavirus would never come to the UK. There was nothing to worry about. There was no need to panic. There was no need to check people arriving from Coronavirus hotspots around the world.

When one or two cases cropped up in the UK. They told us not to worry, those people had been infected overseas. The UK had the worlds best monitoring for contagious diseases and all the necessary procedures to prevent it spreading further. They told us that there was no need for testing. And then the virus started spreading to the general population. The government told us that the NHS was fully prepared, the most advanced health service in the world. They told us not to wear masks and that we should carry on with our normal lives.

And then the virus started spreading. People started dying. Then they told us that it was too late to do any testing. It was pointless. It wouldn’t make any difference. The virus couldn’t be stopped now. 250,000 people were likely to die. There was little that could be done to stop it. But, there was still no need for a lockdown. It was best to let 80% of the population become infected with Coronavirus so that we would acquire ‘herd immunity’. There were plenty of ventilators and protective gear. There was no need to worry.

The most important thing was to ensure that business carried on as usual. Still, more people were dying — but this wasn’t the right time to act.

The numbers of people dying rapidly increased. Businesses started acting on their own initiative, preempting the government’s lack of action. The government relented and imposed a confusing lockdown request. Draconian rules didn’t need to be imposed — this was Britain.

Boris Johnson suggested that we use our time to visit our parents and work from home. And then the message changed. He told us not to visit our parents. People were even more confused. What exactly were the lockdown rules?

The lockdown rules were not working and had to be strengthened. The hospitals were becoming overloaded. There were not enough ventilators. There was not enough protective gear. There was not enough testing. A government report was leaked. It said that the NHS was unprepared for a pandemic.

Another report was released. It said that wearing masks (which we were told not to do) helped to reduce the spread of the virus.[1]

Today, the government announced that 563 more people, infected with COVID-19, had died. That’s slightly more than double the number of British military personnel who died during the entire Falkland’s Conflict.

When the government said that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better — sadly, that might have been the first thing they’ve said that turns out to be true.


[1] Not to protect the wearer so much as the people around him or her.

2020–04–01


‘Outliers: The Story of Success’

There are some books that you read because they’re supposed to be particularly brilliant. But, as you read them, they don’t feel particularly brilliant. And there are those books that are so enjoyable that you want to reread them as soon as you reach the end. That second kind of book is rarely pretentious and inaccessible. It often has an elegant simplicity about it — it is entertaining and it makes sense. These are often the books that aren’t aiming to impress the reader as an end in itself, but to tell a great story.

Outliers definitely falls within that second category. It makes you think about world. Reading it feels like you’ve been on a delightful journey of discovery.

The book sets out to explore what makes a high achiever. People tend to focus on personalities and character, but the ingredients that go into producing successful people go well beyond personality, encompassing: when you were born, childhood advantage, good schooling, access to resources, supportive parents, and enough encouragement and confidence to believe that success is not only attainable, but is something you’re destined for.

One of the strangest aspects to success is the importance of when you were born. There are two parts to this: your birth date, in relation to things that are going on in the wider world (timing) and, weirdly enough, your relative age in class at school.

Simply put, opportunities tend to come along in waves (economic, cultural and technical). The older you get the less likely you are to be a ‘game changer’ and the more likely you are to be maintaining the status quo. Thus someone in their twenties like Bill Gates could revolutionise the tech industry (because he had nothing to lose), whereas executives in their fifties were much less likely to because they were protecting their positions and business market share (in other words, they were resisting change). Plus technology had reached a point where it was ready for explosive growth, which coincided with Bill Gate’s arrival on the scene.

In class, the oldest have the advantage of experience, which tends to give them more confidence. This initial confidence is likely to carry on through a person’s schooling.

Outliers is really a series of essays connected by a theme. Some are more successful than others. The section that I mentioned about Bill Gates was particularly interesting. The one on mathematics was less appealing for me. Malcolm Gladwell even turns the lens on himself.

Gladwell’s done a great job balancing the statistics with the real-life examples and fun anecdotes, presenting a sophisticated argument while keeping it coherent — he makes what could be really quite dry, fascinating.

2020–03–31


‘Groupthink: A Study in Self Delusion’

Christopher Booker’s, Groupthink (2020) is based on pre-existing psychological theories of collective delusion and moral superiority, ideas developed by Irving Janis. Janis applied his theory to the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, among others — bad decisions, produced by groupthink, ideas based on a flawed premise, decisions that led to disaster.

Booker believed that sloppy ‘second hand thinking’, the regurgitation of readymade ideas wholesale, often from dubious sources and without any critical reassessment, has contributed to a collective deluded fantasy, alarmist fear-mongering, and intolerance. This mode has become the new status quo in the West, which is hastening its decline.

Examples of groupthink, that he explores are: political correctness, Puritanism (and New Puritanism), the lost masculine and feminine, global warming and Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Booker died in 2019. During his life, he was a founder and contributor to the satirical magazine Private Eye, a journalist at The Spectator and The Telegraph, a scriptwriter for the BBC’s satirical show That Was The Week That Was, and the author of the Jungian inspired book about storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots (2004).

His work is intriguing because of it’s contrary nature and how it delights in tackling the status quo. His position is primarily one of the contrarian, the polemicist and the historian (seeing things framed within the larger canvas of history). He clearly sees himself as being set apart from ‘the crowd’, his thinking shows the influence of Gustave Le Bon’s, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895).

Groupthink is a strange mixture of Bookerism’s, a solid recap of the British post war political establishment, his own weird obsessions, and plain stubbornness. Much of his career was built on ridiculing the British political establishment. He believed that were living in a fantasy world (a core component of groupthink).1

Booker points to the Suez Crisis as a defining moment between old and new England and how groupthink had pervaded the political class with its fantasy of Britain being a world power. The resulting collision with reality led the UK to rush into another groupthink project, the European Union. Booker was a ‘Euro sceptic’ who favoured the ‘Norway option’.

He disputed the threat of global warming, arguing that the earth was having a naturally occurring second warming period. He observed that Greenland was called Greenland because it didn’t have an ice cap. He refused to accept the connection between passive smoking and cancer, and the danger of asbestos. He campaigned against the Modernist architecture of the 1960s tower-blocks and Brutalist urban redevelopment. And he refuted Darwinian evolution theory.

There’s something oddly familiar about Booker’s thinking that feels very 1930s. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while, and then it clicked — Wyndham Lewis. In the 1930s Wyndham Lewis wrote about the sex-war and the age-war, and other political wars. Lewis was concerned about the dangers posed by ‘the crowd’ (these fears were held by many intellectuals in the 1930s, with ‘mass observation’ coming into vogue as an attempt to understand the behaviour of large groups). Lewis was interested in the management class, the effects of consumerism, the feminisation of masculinity, the decline of the West, and the importance of art and criticism existing ‘outside of time’. Like Booker (with his work at Private Eye, etc), Lewis also satirised the ‘elite’, most notably the posh Bloomsbury art and literary circles, in his novel, The Apes of God.

I found quite a few of Booker’s impassioned arguments verging on the comical (I did literally chuckle once or twice). Some of his groupthink examples come across as a conservative thinker dreaming of the 1930s pre-War idyl of ‘old England’ and resenting anything vaguely socialist.

The post-War Modernist utopia of social housing was, clearly, a failed experiment, but there were many reasons why it did not live up to expectations (poor planning, poor surrounding infrastructure, bad redevelopment locations, low quality construction, culture, etc). But, it should be noted, those ugly tower blocks didn’t replace pretty Tudor homes, they replaced slums without proper drainage or indoor toilets, or bomb damaged areas left empty long after the Second World War.

In another example of groupthink, ‘political correctness’ (a term derived from the binary thinking of Nazi Germany, where people could only have right or wrong thoughts) he never makes any allowance for the well-intentioned origin of these ideas as attempts to right the wrongs of the past. This gives ‘political correctness’ a darkly conspiratorial tone when it’s usually a retroactive attempt to counteract injustice, prevailing prejudice, bullying and other abusive behaviours (although there is no accounting for sloppy implementation). It’s easy to knock things without offering an alternative.

I do think that Booker was right in many ways about the consensus cultures that exist today (on both the left and the right) and the hatred they direct against ‘heretical’ thinkers. Their smug, almost theological disgust and violent disdain has similarities to Puritanism (they were disgusted by almost every expression of fun, from music and dancing to the celebration of Christmas). The in or out arguments of the Brexit ‘debate’ on both sides descended into Swiftian absurdity. Again, vitriol of the binary arguments quickly turned into Bushisms (the mentality of, ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’). How can open debate flourish when all nuance has been lost? What happens when almost no one is scrutinising the management class with intelligent criticism?

Booker is best when he employs his satirical eye to comical effect (for example, observing a clergyman trying to be modern and ‘cool’ about sex). I disagree with him about many things, especially the feminisation of masculinity. Being a man encompasses a wide range of behaviours. It always has and there’s nothing new about this.

I also disagree with him about the environment. While he was preoccupied with refuting the danger of global warming (labelling sceptics like him ‘deniers’ doesn’t help), I think there is a genuine threat to humanity posed by the effects of long term environmental pollution. Just as the Romans never understood the dangers of lead poisoning, we’re ignorant of the long term damage that background pollution could have on our bodies (potentially reducing fertility, to damaging human DNA).

The section that argues against Darwinian evolutionary theory is particularly concise and well conceived.

While many people vocally express their opinions nowadays, they’re usually binary ones, lacking in nuance, ‘discussion’ is little more than a series of codified expletives. Booker’s somewhat anachronistic stance makes him a sort of connoisseur of the contrarian viewpoint, an old ‘stick in the mud’ perhaps, and yet he presents an intriguing conundrum — defined by the swinging sixties, associated with irreverent ‘anti-establishment’ satire, and yet socially conservative.

[1] His book, The Neophiliacs: A Study of the Revolution in English Life in the Fifties and Sixties (1969) explored the role of fantasy in the thinking of the political class.

2020–03–28


‘Westworld’ thoughts (season 1)

Back at episode 2 (Season 1) of Westworld, I somewhat haphazardly guessed where the plot might be going. Now — at the end of Season 1 — it’s time to review those initial thoughts; to explore how the drama unfolded, and throw in some ideas about where, I believe, Season 2 might take us.

How right were my predictions?

The hosts might develop human-like consciousness and eventually rebel against the guests and the resort’s creators (like the original Westworld 1973 film). At some point a ‘conscious’ rogue host could reactivate the glitchy hosts held in storage.

All pretty likely if you’ve watched the original film, and the writing never attempted to hide this angle. We could, for example, have been told, by a suitably well informed character, that the messed-up hosts are incinerated — and then, later on, had the shocking revelation they are actually kept in a dank, underground storage area.

Some guests could work with the hosts, seeking to have the hosts recognised as conscious entities, with the rights of a living being, while others will continue to use and abuse them for their entertainment.

So far it appears that only the hosts really care about the other hosts (as they develop a sense of an identity based community). Bernard thought he was human, but is in fact a host. William’s (AKA: The Man in Black) love for Dolores Abernathy turns out to be a ‘romantic’ dead end, and their relationship becomes a classic battle of opposing sides.

The guests are not physically present within the resort. They’re having a virtual reality experience (in a similar manner to The Matrix, and True Lies). Everything the audience is witnessing about the resort and the creators is an elaborate ruse, a distraction, designed to create the semblance of realism (something like Source Code).

Unlikely. But it’s possible that the whole Delos resort is located off-planet, in something resembling the scenario of Dark City (1998).

West World is the entry level of a larger game that leads to other worlds from the original Westworld (1973) film: Roman World, and Medieval World, or new fantasy levels that offer increasing levels of extravagance, luxury, depravity and debauchery.

We now know that there are other worlds, including a Samurai World. It seems unlikely that we would be teased with Samurai World unless we revisit it in some capacity. Samurai World brings in many interesting cultural possibilities, and what might occur if escapee hosts from West World somehow clash with the hosts from Samurai World (or join forces) — how postmodern would that be? On another note, increasing levels ‘extravagance, luxury, depravity and debauchery’ seems unlikely as there’s plenty of depravity already. The scope for other worlds seems endless.

It’s likely that at some point the audience will be offered a glimpse of the world outside of the West World resort. What would that look like? It could be something of a shock; or it might resemble today’s world, in a mundane way; it could be a dystopian nightmare (suffering from pollution and repression); or a high tech world devoid of excitement and challenge. (A problem with the original film was: if the androids were so sophisticated why are they not being used in the real world as care assistants, old rig workers, domestic helpers, cleaners, factory workers, etc, etc? How might this question be answered in the new series?)

Still an intriguing question. Maeve almost leaves, but returns to search for her child within Westworld. My guess (based on Logan’s lost photo of his sister), is that the outside world resembles today’s, but with more advanced technology.

It’s possible that hosts could escape into the real world and seek revenge on the creators (something along the lines of Blade Runner).

It almost happened with Maeve: the retribution against humans seems to be a up-and-coming theme, most obviously with the group appearing on the edge of the woods at the end of the Season 1 finale.

What happens when guests complete the game? What comes after the final level? 

The maze or ‘game’ is a dead end. It’s a metaphor for the hosts’ path to consciousness.

What if the creators are not human?

Judging by the subtlety of the storytelling so far, this would probably be a bit too heavy-handed, an unlikely homage to late-90s sci-fi.

What if the creators are also inside one of the levels of the game?

It’s possible, but unlikely.

We may see the guests in their real lives and witness their game persona in context to the real person (along with their backstory).

Lost developed from a plane crash survivor story into a series of extended and interlocking backstories. I don’t get a sense of this happening anytime soon in Westworld.

How the drama unfolded

The production standards in Westworld are very high — cinematic even. The West World environment and interactive parameters were laid out nicely, but the timeline shifts (that work so well in a 113 minute film like Memento, which is viewed in a single session), in my view, are less exhilarating in a 10 hour television series experienced over a number of weeks. It felt somewhat predictable and drawn-out, and killed the overall rhythm of the story: prioritising conceptual ideas over the raw thrill of an unfolding drama. The jump from being inside West World — as a guest or a host — to the host repair shop world of Sylvester & Felix felt jolting, not quite believable.

Where Westworld Season 2 might take us

The finale seemed predictable, or at least unsurprising. The appearance of the bandits at the edge of the forest (were they bandits, or re-activated hosts kitted up for a fight?) brought back connotations of the mysterious ‘others’ arriving in Lost. The demise of Ford — not a hugely likeable character — reminded me of Ned Stark’s fate in Game of Thrones. Is that the end of him, or will he return in numerous flashbacks in Season 2 (taking over from Arnold’s ever-present influence, while never actually being physically there)? And, in a world where so many hosts are routinely killed and brought back to life, will Ford also return — revealed to be yet another host, like Bernard — or has Dolores killed a host version of Ford, a stand in for a real man?

There are so many stories within stories in Westworld — plays within plays. The hosts’ conscious identity is another fictional narrative within a narrative. These fictional anchors to their consciousness seem to be their primary motivation, locking them into their contrived world, as effectively as any hardware lock-in can prevent them from leaving. Maeve’s return to West World in search of ‘her daughter’ — curtailing her near escape into the outside — is the verification that her implanted memories (her fake backstory), has successfully moderated her ‘free will’.

Like Season 1, Season 2 will bring in multiple narratives, and (I’m guessing) the focus will be inside West World: Maeve’s quest to find her daughter (to defend that relationship, or to blame the humans in the eventuality that it doesn’t turn out to be that she expects); Dolores and Ted coming to terms with what they believe is ‘their’ consciousness (as opposed to being Ford’s actors); the ‘robot insurrection’ story; and the Man in Black’s continued journey — although human his quest is much the same as the hosts, a journey of identity, getting a sense of who he is. Season 2 might pick up exactly where it left off, or it may jump into a completely new timeline. I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, we ‘wake up’ in Samurai World (much like Lost introduced us to a the new character, Desmond and his backstory).

Mad Men focused on one character, Don Draper; Breaking Bad had Walter White; Lost had Jack Shephard — but there’s no one in Westworld who appears to fulfil the role of the show’s honorary anchor person. Ford is too distant, too clever (and probably a sociopath); one minute William was the polite nice guy and then he turned into the evil overlord; Bernard is a character in someone else’s story; Delores and Maeve have come back from the dead so many times, one feels they will keep suffering but the stakes are low — they can always be re-spawned. I need a character to cheer on and support, someone who is vulnerable, but, enough of a player — however flawed — to feel like it’s worth sticking around for.

2016–12–05


Where is ‘Westworld’ going?

It’s early times for Westworld (2016) Season 1 (currently at episode 2, with 8 instalments remaining). So far, the scene has been set, and the scenario explained. Guests come to have an experience at the West World resort, either with their families, to relax or for a pleasant bonding experience —or they come alone, perhaps with a friend, to act out violent, and sexual fantasies. The Westworld experience is much akin to a computer game albeit one where the player is physically present within the experience, although the guests are, apparently, protected from danger and cannot be shot (bullets from guns at the resort hit the guests with a harmless puff of smoke).

The ‘robots’, or hosts, appear to be constructed using a 3D printing method, possibly using ‘living’ organic material. They exist in a Groundhog Day-like limbo, endlessly repeating the same scripts and loops, supposedly not fully conscious of themselves or their predicament. The question of their consciousness will probably be explored throughout the show, emerging as a central theme. If they live and feel, experience pain and fear, and happiness, and they’re aware of those emotions: are they not conscious beings? The creators seem to cherish them: sometimes talking to them as companions; sometimes like a parent speaking to a child; sometimes commanding them like a slave; sometimes interacting with them as if they are simply a ‘machine’. There’s plenty of material to explore in the relationship between the hosts, the guests and the creators.

There are puzzling inconsistencies though: why are super-realistic simulations of living people not scripted to automatically get irritated when a fly lands on their face, let alone when it walks across their eyeball? Only the host Dolores Abernathy appears to bothered by rogue flies? It’s probably a device that signifies she’s developed a sophisticated awareness, or actual consciousness, of her situation, one which she’s hiding from the creators.

Then there’s the whole thing about hosts having firmware updates that are causing issues. The firmware update is an attempt to make the hosts behave more realistically, to develop independent reactions to situations (as opposed to scripted responses). How can bullets kill the hosts, but not the guests? Why hasn’t this been adequately explained? And, finally, what is the maze the Man in Black has discovered hidden in the scalp of an unlucky host he tortured? Could this lead to a new level of ‘the game’? These clues might potentially show where the story is heading.

It’s a likely assumption that there will be a plot twist at the end of season 1, to hook the audience into watching season 2. In Lost there was a mysterious underground living space beneath the hatch. In Mad Men we learnt that Don Draper was actually Dick Whitman. What could the clues of: ‘the fly’, the glitchy firmware update, the mystery of the harmless bullets, and the hidden maze map lead to?

2016–10–03


The extinction story

With global warming, floods, health pandemics… the human extinction story is back in fashion. In the 1970s it took shape in the post-apocalyptic story where a wondering lone hero (or a band of heroes) survived in a post-nuclear Armageddon, a petrol-starved wasteland, while also attempting to rebuild a viable society. Outliers like ‘Silent Running’ (1972) focused in on the wider eco-system, not just the plight of humanity itself.

Most of those 1970’s stories were tonally upward journey’s, surprisingly optimistic. Although much of humanity had been wiped out, the message was simple: we’re tough and we will prevail. There’s always hope.

In ‘The Road’ (2009), ‘The Survivalist’ (2015), and ‘High Life’ (1919) the tone is altogether darker. It is about maintaining hope in an otherwise hopeless world that’s filled with destruction and barbarity. But, even in a world like this there’s still selflessness and sacrifice — there’s still a moral choice to be made.

In ‘Aniara’ (2018) journey is a downward one, away from optimism, which makes for a tough sell. It is a bleak but intelligently handled story about materialism and human meaning — ‘High Rise’ set in space, an imploding micro-society meets ‘Silent Running’. In essence it is saying that hope is wrapped up in other bigger things, like a wider social context, connection, belonging, and an earth-like natural environment which people feel at one with.

The mainstream Hollywood story is usually a tonally upward one, the little person winning against the odds, justice being fought for and attained, positive change, good winning against evil, finding harmony. In essence it says: there’s no need to worry. The mass extinction story (often in the form of the low budget science fiction indie movie) is one of coming to terms with a grim new truth, a new reality.

In blockbuster Hollywood films the global floods, earthquakes, ice-storms and meteorites never lead to extinction. There’s always someone with a nifty idea just in time to save the day. With independent films the audience doesn’t always have that certainty. The tonally downward journey is, in a way, a modern morality tale about love and sacrifice.

2019–02–02


The shock ending

While Shakespeare wasn’t averse to suddenly killing off a bunch of characters at the end of a play, the shock ending is something altogether different. It deliberately foregoes the denouement at the end of the story (which provides a breathing space for the audience to recuperate) leaving them with an unresolved trauma, an inexplicable, or disturbing scene or image.

The shock ending has its roots in the cliffhangers of serial fiction, pulp fiction, and the early Twentieth Century film serials. Episodes ended with a character in danger: Zorro about to be captured and unmasked, a damsel in distress about to be run over by an approaching steam train, Flash Gordon’s rocket ship about to explode. Reader’s or viewers had to buy the next episode to find out what happened next.

The 1960s Counter Culture produced films like Rosemary’s Baby, which inverted the assumption in traditional storytelling that good triumphs over evil. The shock ending in Rosemary’s Baby relies on a simple visual trick, which turns the familiar and ordinary into something terrifying.

The shock ending can take on many forms: subverting the story, the unexpected death of a protagonist, the injustice of an evil act going unpunished, or a troubling irony. In other instances it can be surreal, literary or artistic: a scene with symbolic, mysterious, or cryptic meaning.

The shock ending of Enemy presents the audience with a bizarre final image that has symbolic meaning. The symbolism appears a number of times as foreshadowing, but the shock ending goes beyond that. It ambushes the audience, who are unprepared for it, and they have no time to recover before the credits roll.

In Fight Club the shock ending is a revelation. In the Usual Suspects we discover that Keyser Söze isn’t who we might think it might be. In Citizen Kane it’s the revelation of a great man’s life is rendered meaningless, when the representation of a beloved and unobtainable childhood object is destroyed.

Planet of the Apes has a famous shock ending when Taylor sees a statue, and realises that he is not on a random planet in space, but somewhere more recognisable. And in Seven a package delivery has never been so disturbing.

Shock endings are often visual, because they need to work instantly. There are exceptions, in Demon Seed it’s achieved through a character’s voice. It can also be achieved through a reveal or reversal, such as the camera pulling away to provide a bigger picture or showing something unexpected, such as the ending in The Village, or a scene which provides unexpected context, like the ending of the Polish science fiction film Sex Mission. Shocking reveals are often linked to unreliable narrators: Atonement, Secret Window, and Shutter Island. (Although these can be plot points that occur during the story rather than absolute shock endings).

Don’t Look Now (1973) has a sudden shock ending that undermines the audience’s expectation of what they think they are going to see. Also from 1973, The Wicker Man has one of the best and probably most famous shock endings. Once again, it subverts audience expectations that logic, reason, and good will triumph over evil and injustice. Conversely, in The Departed we are set up to believe that ‘justice’ will not be served — and then the unexpected happens.

2019–12–08


‘The Science of Storytelling’

Will Storr’s, The Science of Storytelling merges neurology and psychology with a writing guide. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about for years, stemming from my interest in François de La Rochefoucauld’s collected Maxims (1665).

Research by Michael Gazzaniga and others has since proven that the essence of La Rochefoucauld’s observations about human nature (or, in modern terms, the sub-conscious functions of the brain) were remarkably accurate (although it’s fair to say that La Rochefoucauld was a victim of the prejudices and fashions of his own contemporary culture).

In modern terms, La Rochefoucauld hit on the notion of self-deception and denial, which he would have called vanity. He saw these things through the lens of human nature. Again, in modern terminology, what we would explain through psychology, neurology and genetics.

The brain is a kind of bullshit machine, loaded to sway our reasoning in a way that increases our chances of survival, while also making us feel better about ‘our’ decisions (once again, to boost our own survival). Fully grasping the effect of this process, from within it, is an almost impossible challenge.[1]

Will Storr explains that the eye scans the world at about 4 to 5 saccades a second, but the brain joins these up to create feeling of continuity. Our senses are limited. We only perceive a tiny fraction of the light spectrum. ‘Reality is a hallucination’.

Storr develops a convincing argument that our ‘partial understanding’ of the world (through the mechanism of the senses and the brain, and how they work together) frames what we look for in fiction. Unable to process everything, the brain seeks shortcuts to aid understanding of the world, the things that matter for our survival like patterns, movement and change — the same things that appeal to us as readers when we read novels and watch films.

We also use storytelling as a tool to explore the hidden world of peoples’ subconscious motivations (confabulation), what we gleefully notice in others but are (mostly) unable to see within ourselves. In this way, storytelling is integrally connected to our identity, who we think we are, our ‘vices’ and ‘virtues’.

We are ‘the heroes of our own movies’. Stories affirm who we are, who we empathise with, and what we feel threatened by. We’re flawed beings — literally unable to see our own flaws because of the way our brain processes the world, mostly outside of consciousness. And yet, we’re fascinated by the flaws of others, which we do notice — flawed characters make stories interesting.

Will Storr goes on to explain the ‘theory of control’ in which people create models about the world, along with a strategy based around those models. That strategy refers back to what he calls ‘origin damage’, usually in the form of a childhood trauma, and a long established coping mechanism to get around it. This psychological framework, he argues, should be applied to fiction to make fictional characters realistic. The 5 act plot works so effectively because it is able to chronicle the breakdown of the main character’s ‘core beliefs about reality’.

There are also basic personality traits, which are used in psychology: neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. These traits, on a lesser and a greater scale, play out in tandem with events in the plot to create an ‘ignition point’.

Well constructed characters have inner conflict because people have conflicting desires (wanting to connect with others… and to dominate them). Realistic characters are bound by human judgements based on selfishness and selflessness, which impact on their social status. Compelling fiction is full of ‘status reversals’.

The bigger picture is that stories are about characters wanting to achieve their conscious desires. But, this inevitably leads to failure because what they really need to satisfy are their subconscious goals (which relate to their ‘origin damage’). In effect goals in the physical world are confused with satisfying emotional needs, status and other factors, feelings that exist in the mind. So, in order to realise their inner goals (as they are often labelled) characters have to question their ‘core beliefs about reality’ (in order to transcend their own delusion and denial).

What I really like about this approach is that it’s not too prescriptive — it provides a useful framework to help writers deliver engaging stories that feel more authentic.

[1] Or, as ‘Lao Tzu’ wrote, in 400BC, in his work of philosophical poetry, the Tao Te Ching: ‘Can you polish your mysterious mirror and leave no blemish?’

And, incidentally, what is possibly the best observation about human nature and our inability to comprehend ourselves, comes from the unlikely source of the New Testament of the Bible, from Luke 23:34: ‘Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”’.

2020–03–22


Why are people so angry?

There are a lot of angry people out there right now. There are feelings of injustice. There is blame.

After the Second World War the West enjoyed economic prosperity. It seemed as if things were getting better and better. That stopped in the 1970s and the West has had an identity crisis ever since.

The reality is that not everyone enjoyed that economic success. And when the banks were bailed out after the financial crash people started wondering why the government (who believed in free market economies) stepped in to save the banks. Then there was the decade of cuts to government services. Good government was small government.

The new economic reality

The new economic reality is that the mantra of greed is good and the dogma of the free market is beginning to wobble. And the politicians in the Westminster bubble do not have the answers about what comes next.

People are angry because they have not had a slice of the cake, because their jobs and wealth is drying up. Our leaders told us to believe in the free market and market forces. And now our nations are less wealthy. As a result, a lot more people who were doing okay and doing less okay, and they are reassessing the world they live in.

2016–02–26


Monochrome photography and the dark aesthetic

While I’ve always admired the subtlety and skill of images produced by photographers like Robert Adams who are known for their beautifully subtle mid tones and delicate tonal range, I’ve always been attracted to punchy, high contrast, images with accentuated grain, and for want of a proper technical term what I call the ‘dark aesthetic’. These are images that live within a perpetual twilight, and the moody tones of Film Noir. The dark aesthetic turns everything into a shadow realm, alive with brooding mystery, and lit up with glowing highlights, with very little in-between.

For some photographers, there’s an almost philosophical connection between the ‘dark aesthetic’ and a desire to graphically simplify their images, to render them down into something that one might associate with a woodblock print. To some extent, this is a matter of taste — a stylistic device. This can become a cliché when the look and feel of moody black and white image, the high contrast and accentuated grain, becomes just another software filter. What might have taken years of experience and a master printmaking can be mimicked in Lightroom using a pre-set, or an Instagram filter.

The past masters of the moody back and white images, photographers like Joseph Koudelka’s Exiles created parallel worlds, transforming muted real-world colours into a stark artistic vision. But, black and white photography, especially photo journalism, went right out of fashion, because people wanted to see the world in glorious living colour. The strength and weakness of black and white is that it’s one step away from reality. This can be brilliantly exploited in the fine art print, but for general use on websites, or in journalism it communicates a quaintly retro feel or — worse — pretentiousness. Fashions come and go, and it’s no different with photography. When someone like Trent Parke comes along with a stunning collection of images like Minutes to Midnight the dark aesthetic fine art print takes on a new lease of life.

Music photography has a long history of black and white images, dating back to a time when newspapers and magazines were printed in black and white, and colour photography at live concerts was challenging with old film stocks. There’s always been a rebellious ‘anti-mainstream’ vibe to band photography that dates back to rock and Punk. The dark aesthetic comes and goes, from post-punk and Gothic to contemporary rap, and grime.

More recently, with the predominance of digital cameras, autofocus, auto exposure, and camera sensors that provide technically perfect photos almost every time, where saturated images with a huge dynamic range, especially in RAW, produce quality that would have been exceptionally hard or impossible to achieve twenty years ago. From the beautifully saturated colours of Cibachrome art prints in the 1990s, William Eggleston’s work, and Martin Parr, the saturated Superrealism seems less radical and more mundane. Suddenly, black and white photography seems fresh again. There’s even been a trend for monochrome movies with films like Mad Max: Fury Road (2016) being screened and released in special ‘Black and Chrome’ editions. The Mad Max: Fury Road ‘Black and Chrome’ feels like a science fiction fantasy film art directed by Trent Parke.

Although black and white was superseded by colour film stock like Kodachrome and Technicolour back in the 1950s, some directors continued to exploit monochrome as a device to create atmosphere, horror, to save money, for technical reasons, or just to be different: The Last Picture Show (1971) appropriated the black and white look of the Golden Age of Hollywood to reveal a failing backwater small town almost in the image of a Dorothea Lange or Robert Frank photo; Eraserhead (1977) used the dark aesthetic as a device to create a disturbingly surreal horror world; in Manhattan (1979) it was used to give the story a nostalgic tone; The Elephant Man (1980) used black and white as part of the films artistic vision; and Control (2007) referenced the visual look of Anton Corbijn’s photos of Joy Division.

Since colour images supplanted monochrome in the mainstream media, black and white is often regarded as ‘art’. Hengki Koentjoro’s brilliant landscapes are ‘purist’ photography in the sense that they’re all about light and dark. They’re magically atmospheric. And when Sarah Lee photographed the 2017 Baftas she took along with her a Leica and produced a series of moody black and white images for the Guardian. Black and white, and the snapshot aesthetic, is commonly used in street fashion magazines, because it has a rawness to it, which feels underground and edgy in a world of glossy colour.

2017–02–24


Peace of mind in a complicated world

If form is content, and style is meaning — and these things are indivisible — then that fancy shirt you want to buy really is an intrinsic part of your life, your happiness, and anxiety. It’s indivisible from your mind-set. And so is our attitude to simplicity and complexity.

A core element of comedy involves a ‘switch’ of some kind; mistaken identity, a sudden special power that comes and goes, a change in fortune. People seem to have the knack of looking for simplicity, while in fact making their lives ever more complicated. An undesirable switch takes place.

How we perceive meaning and happiness largely depends on how simple or complicated we define things. The larger our framework of references, the continual comparisons and ‘performance checking’, the greater the anxiety. The need to explain things to ourselves is completely natural, and human, as is the desire to look good to other people — but there comes a time when you can be happy, or you can be right. We get to switch between one or the other.

What is happiness? The ancient Greeks had a word Ataraxia, which translated into English means a feeling of tranquillity — freedom from anxiety. This equates quite well with the ‘peace of mind’ that so many people are looking for in the modern world. But how do people achieve Ataraxia?

The philosopher Pyrrho asserted that truth is basically unknowable. The way to happiness is by suspending belief and judgement. This mind-set was picked up by the artist Marcel Duchamp, who believed in cultivating a certain degree of indifference. His notion of ‘indifference’ was an intellectual stance, and he achieved that by handing over key artistic decisions to random chance. When his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass) was damaged, while being transported, resulting in the glass pane fracturing, instead of reacting with anger he declared that this was the final act that had completed the artwork.

Epicurus saw personal happiness as revolving around the avoidance of unverifiable (and thus pointless) opinions about life after death and politics, while studiously avoiding angry and argumentative people, and, instead, seeking out affectionate and trusting people who are virtuous.

Ataraxia — peace of mind — is a state of mind, a way of thinking. It’s being able to see beyond the immediate and misleading hype. Accepting that a certain lack of control exists in the world. As the Water Man in the film Seraphim Falls says:

Go as you wish. That which is yours will always return to you. That which you take will always be taken from you.

2016–04–04


‘McCullin’

Directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris, the 2012 documentary McCullin provides an insightful journey through Don McCullin’s war photography in various conflict zones. His matter-of-fact accounts and background information about individual images reveals amazing and truly horrific stories surrounding the decisive moment—how events impacted individual people.

The documentary provides an intriguing behind the scenes look at how war photographers operate, and especially the thinking behind his own experience of the horrors. Having witnessed atrocities, murders, horrific brutality, as a viewer you wonder: why did he keep going back for more? Why didn’t he switch to less disturbing assignments? Was the kick of being at the heart of the action an adrenaline shot, an addiction? To some extent I’d guess that his own identity became wrapped up in his job: Don McCullin the war photographer. It was part of how he saw himself — who he was and what he did. It’s difficult to know the truth, but it’s probably a mixture of many things: the journalistic desire to record the truth, an addiction to the adrenaline, and being where ‘the action’ is.

His descriptions are incredibly powerful because they are cool and unemotional. Matter-of-fact. Always simply stating what happened; describing the horror of the event, letting the acts and actions speak for themselves rather than imposing his own emotions and views. This is perhaps most poignant in his coverage of conflict in Africa involving mercenaries who had a psychopathic contempt for human life and who took pleasure in stealing, torturing, raping and slaughtering people. McCullin’s coverage of starving children in the Biafran war is also profoundly shocking; his descriptions of near-death children dying of malnutrition and disease is difficult to watch and disturbing. One can only image what it was like to be there, witnessing such an awful tragedy — seeing it all around you.

McCullin’s career took a different path when conflict coverage was phased out of The Sunday Times in preference for celebrity coverage, which was perceived to be advertiser friendly. Who really wants to see death, destruction and starving children while they’re eating their Sunday breakfast? This change also signalled a mainstream shift in the media to celebrity news and popular culture (which is also cheap to produce) instead of in-depth coverage of global conflicts and investigative journalism (which is expensive). His latter career saw him cover the Lebanese war, where he photographed further brutality and massacres, but assigning him there was widely seen as a way of side-lining him. This continued with the Falkland’s War when he was refused a press pass. It was a time of patriotic jingoism, when being loyally ‘on-message’ was more of a priority than giving journalists free access to report the truth.

His work can be seen as an indictment of the West during the Cold War, which fought numerous proxy wars against the Soviet Union and Communist nationalists fighting Western backed regimes in Asia, Africa and South America. His war photography captures the full horror of war — and the innocent civilians caught up in brutality and injustice. And, we should never forget, behind these individual horrors lies the bigger reality of political power, corporate investments in mining, national interests, foreign policies, wide-scale corruption, theft from the people, and the casual use of intimidation and violence as a means to an end.

Don McCullin ended up retiring from journalism to take up landscape photography. Traipsing around the English countryside to capture landscape shots devoid of people, devoid of suffering and horror. It must have been a meditative experience, possibly an attempt to exercise the ghosts.

This documentary covers harrowing material and it certainly isn’t for the squeamish, but it tells a story about real people caught up in real events: life is complicated, filled with small acts of kindness as well as savagery. McCullin captured these images from the front line leaving behind an amazing body of work; recording moments that would otherwise have been long forgotten and reminding us that since the ‘peace’ at the end of World War II conflict has raged on continuously around the globe. He documented both the psychotic brutality people are capable of — as well as individual acts of empathy and heroism.

2017–08–19


Kale is overrated

In the last five years kale has been increasingly overhyped. It’s gone from nowhere to becoming, in some circles at least, a cure-all health food; moving from yesterday’s unappetising green into the choice of the urban sophisticate. Once granny’s mom served it up; boiled to death, dished out with mashed potato and meatloaf, now kale coleslaw is the darling of raw vegan foodists, and gym-worshiping health fanatics.

For centuries kale — wild cabbage — was Europe’s staple vegetable, hardy, and nutritious, but it fell out of favour. Now it’s bounced back, championed by an army of YouTube ‘health experts’ and self-appointed diet gurus. It’s relatively cheap and obtainable, especially now that it’s reappeared in supermarkets, chopped and packed in bags (usually looking less than vividly green it could be), but ever-so-convenient. You can find fresh whole leaf kale in good fruit and vegetable shops, and organic health food stores.

So, it’s cheap, and it is a healthy green leaf vegetable —but what do you do with the stuff? The traditional kale preparation method is to boil it, but these days it’s more civilised to use a steamer, which also keeps in more of the goodness. Personally, I think it goes well when it’s seasoned with sesame oil and soya sauce, oriental style. If you want to serve a delicious, luxury version (luxury is usually a code word for high calorie), you can part steam it, and finish it off by frying it in butter with some bacon.

Kale’s other claim to fame comes in the form of the ever-popular smoothie. I’m a big fan of the smoothie, which has been around for a long time; the term ‘smoothie’ was coined back in the 1930s when powerful blenders like the Vita-mix became available. In the 1950s fruit smoothies were popularly sold alongside milkshakes.

Today, the big comeback for the smoothie has been the ‘green machine’, which comes in a number of green vegetable variations, usually incorporating kale or spinach, and sweetened with a combination of fruit (including apples, kiwi, banana, mango, and pineapple), and pepped up with ginger or parsley. The green smoothie works best when it balances the sweetness of the fruit with the grassy bitterness of kale or spinach. While there’s something to be said for the green smoothie, it can also result in the over-consumption of kale, and smoothies that just don’t taste great. There are people who believe kale is a ‘super food’, and consuming relatively large quantities can cure a range of diseases and ailments, although none of this is actually scientifically proven. (Consumed in large quantities kale can even be detrimental to your health).

Kale has its place, but the excited claims made for it by self-declared diet and lifestyle gurus, as some kind of ’wonder food’, are vastly exaggerated.

2017–05–29


‘Anton Corbijn Inside Out’

Klaartje Quirijns’ documentary Anton Corbijn Inside Out explores Corbijn’s impressive career as a music photographer alongside a personal insight into Anton Corbijn ‘the man’. We are taken through various photo shoots, back office tinkering, client meetings and, perhaps most poignantly, those quiet moments when he’s taking some downtime to reflect on his work and life. In these moments we learn of the sacrifice he’s made to achieve his success. We also learn about the motivations behind his obsession with photography — what drives him creatively. The exploration of the creative process is at the heart of this film. How influences from childhood, family life and adolescence can inform an artist’s scope. Anton Corbijn (and, more revealingly his sister) discusses his childhood upbringing in a strictly religious family, where their parents were often preoccupied with church matters. The children were left to their own devices for prolonged periods of time and suffered from protracted boredom. It was finding ways of filling these periods with something interesting that he began to develop his creative thinking. And being brought up in a religious environment has imbued his work with an obvious religious tone.

While he professes to be a quiet loner who enjoys protracted silence, he’s a remarkably cool and confident professional when it comes to handling potentially difficult clients (rock and pop artists). He conducts his shoots with a sense of calm control, leading his subjects with clear direction and ever-present good humour. As a photographer his ‘live performance’ as it were: directing subjects, his calm grip on things, his quiet but concise communication skills, bringing in the scenery and location and using space effectively, and incorporating a ‘cinematic feel’ is remarkable.

The film covers his work as an artist, emphasising the depth of his work, essentially stating his value as a serious photographic artist instead of just portraying him as an editorial/commercial photographer who made a name for himself using heavily stylised moody monochromes and saturated high contrast colour images.

The documentary skips his music video productions for his film directing, mostly covering Control and The American. But it’s really in the quiet moments with the photographer himself that the documentary shines as a living cinematic portrait. As a production Anton Corbijn Inside Out looks beautiful with an abundance of textures and contrasting looks, from gritty black and white to a slick ‘movie feel’, and all this is punctuated with voiceovers, cutaways, music and ambient sounds. But there’s something revealing about the documentary because Corbijn’s job is to make his subjects look not just good or even great, but majestic — superhuman even.

As seductive and beautifully engaging as his work is it’s ultimately slick advertising of a kind; revealing the story that the record company’s marketing department wants to be seen and nothing else. There’s no doubt that in working within this limitation he’s produced a stunning body of work. But, we are reminded, that this documentary is also highly selective in how in presents Anton Corbijn to us — as the Romantic loner-artist, sacrificing himself for his work.

2017–08–07


In praise of a good bath

A good bath is a simple pleasure. And, in a stressed-out world, it’s often the simple things that count — the things that help us to relax.

This is where a good bath comes in, and learning to enjoy it as an experience. It’s one of those ‘little luxuries’ we overlook in the West: one that many cultures give greater significance.

In medieval Europe, a bath could be a life-threatening activity with people dying of pneumonia. In today’s world, with central heating and hot bath water — thankfully — this is a thing of the past. But there’s a perception that baths are a functional necessity, for personal hygiene. They are this, of course, but they can be so much more. It doesn’t help that the tiny bathrooms in many new-builds feel like an afterthought.

Time is often a factor that precludes people from enjoying a decent bath — or should I say not enough of it. You can only have so much ‘task orientated productivity’ in your life before you begin to feel like a factory chicken. There’s a lot of benefit in reflection, stepping back and taking stock. And having a good bath is a genuine part of that.

In Japan they take bath-time seriously. Traditionally, cultured Japanese people wash themselves before going into a bath. Once in the bath they sit in it and let themselves soak. I think that’s a remarkably civilised way to do it. There are several cultures around the world that traditionally go in for public baths, such as the Turkish bath. The Ancient Romans also favoured the public bath. And in Scandinavia they have the sauna.

A hot bath helps us to relax and contemplate our thoughts — to think of ‘nothing’. The bathroom is a private space where we can lock everyone out. There’s something elemental about being in a properly filled hot bath; it’s probably a stretch to call it embryonic, but there’s something undeniably calming about it.

2017–05–28


In praise of a decent coffee

A cup of coffee is a small but delightful part of the day. It’s an affordable luxury.

Coffee is quite possibly the perfect writers’ drink (so long as you’re not too wired already). It has that unmistakeable aroma and deliciously bitter taste. It has that ability to recharge my concentration. I can’t think of a better way to see in a winter’s sunrise than with a decent coffee.

There are a number of elements that contribute to making the perfect coffee:

I enjoy a variety of coffee. My go-to everyday coffee is Arvid Nordquist, Classic Mellanrost.

In terms of the production method, I’ve tried a number of techniques. These days I tend to stick with a French press. I like a strong brew, which tends to work well with this method.

A decent coffee is something best enjoyed in a relaxing environment. For me, it’s the best way to start the day and to begin a writing session.

2017–05–19


Healthy Cake

Cake used to be bad for you, it had sugar, and eggs, and wheat flour (the horror), candied fruits, and butter — loads, and loads, of butter — all manner of unhealthy ingredients. But it’s made an amazing alt-cake comeback, kicking and screaming into the second decade of the 21 Century as an all-new, completely reinvented, ‘fake news’ cake — the original post-truth treat. What am I taking about? Why, the healthy cake, of course.

The great thing about a healthy cake is that you literally can have your cake and eat it, and suffer absolutely zero repercussions, because a healthy cake is good for you. Right?

It must be true, that if you dump a load of natural, hopefully ‘plant based’, ingredients into a bowl, you can only get something super-healthy when it magically appears out of the oven. Twenty-five organic pitted dates… Sure no problem. How about maple syrup, or agave, with its low GI… Perfect! Half a kilo of blitzed almonds for the base. Delicious, and so easy. Just mix it with coconut oil, and hey presto… A healthy cake with no sign of processed sugar or saturated fat.

Of course, there are benefits of a natural, ‘plant based’ diet — but a bowl of dates, coconut oil, and handfuls of almonds, is loaded with sugar and fat. It will be high in calories, and may not even taste as good as the ‘real thing’. That’s the problem with so-called healthy cakes, the substitute ingredients are not particularly healthy.

Then there’s the even-healthier cake, the raw vegan cake: which hasn’t had all the natural bacterial goodness cooked out of it by having a stint in that nutritional torture chamber, the oven. Food is a living thing, and being full life you’ll end up murdering it if it goes above 33°C or 48°C!

At least, if you make a cake, you know what went into it. It should be free of E-numbers, colourings and preservatives. But, so many of the claimed health benefits of expensive, ‘healthy’ ingredients (usually the ones with exotic sounding names) are exaggerated. It turns out that the answer is painfully simple — simulating a traditional cake with substitute ‘healthy’ ingredients will probably create an almost equally unhealthy cake. It will be sugary, fatty, and high in calories.

So you might as well enjoy yourself and have the real thing, to some extent. Cakes are, by their very nature, a special treat, something to enjoy every once in a while. They’re not the kind of thing you should have every day, and that’s part of the problem with so-called ‘healthy cake’, because it legitimises over-indulging on the false grounds that you’re eating something that’s good for you.

2016–06–02


Designed simplicity

We live in a complicated world, but there are people out there working to make it easier. These are the designers and engineers of the world, honing their skills and experience to make things run smoother. Let’s face it, there are too many decisions, choices, options, menus — or, equally as bad — a complete lack of choice. ‘Don’t make me think’ was coined by Steve Krug to describe efficient and effective website navigation and content, but it applies to almost everything —except the stuff we choose to help us contemplate the world. We want the novel we’re about to read, the next film we see, and pretty much any philosophy book — to make us think. Being made to think is a positive and a negative. When it’s mentally elevating and mind expanding it’s positive. When it’s cognitively draining and tiresome it’s the opposite.

Great design is about reducing problems down to their essence and addressing those needs. Bad design gets in the way of solving that same problem. With design, everything that requires a solution is a problem — something that needs to be worked out during the development process.

The success of any design is always be a matter of opinion. Key indicators are usually quantitative things like market share and sales numbers. Qualitative values, such as, the experience of the solution, as it were, includes things like the joy of ownership and the perceived value a product or service — how it makes us feel. Cumbersome, difficult to figure out designs, are frustrating; but seamless solutions that provide apparently effortless service are a pleasure. Simplifying complicated problems down tends to produce more satisfying results, but it can lead to a false elegance where less is always more.

There comes a point when you do need features and content to provide practical functionality. This is the issue with minimalism, less is inherently seen as better —to the point of dogma — even if it impinges on the user experience, and practical usefulness. A key parameter to judge the success of a design is how much pleasure it gives the user. Things that are a joy to own and satisfy our practical needs must be viewed as a success, but it also goes that if someone wants a minimalistic product, that — in their opinion —is also a success. Whatever the criteria of judgement that goes into the perceived success or failure of a design, it includes a whole bunch of parameters that include purposefulness and aesthetics. It’s the designers job (and the marketing department) to reduce the snags — the inherent frustrations and irritations surrounding a product or service.

The ‘purist’ solution is to cut out as many variables as possible, not necessarily because it brings the benefits of simplification, but for aesthetic reasons — as a matter of taste. Minimalism can hide things away from immediate view, only to store them in a way that makes finding them slow and frustrating. Removing tactile buttons and dials from cameras and replacing them with complex software menus that are cumbersome to navigate. Moving kitchen appliances into special storage cupboards to maintain the ‘integrity’ of a minimalist space removes the complexity from plain sight, but brushes it under the carpet, so to speak: any true craftsman knows that the dust is still there.

Designed simplicity is a pragmatic form of minimalist inspired thinking. It’s okay to leave something on the kitchen counter if you use it every day. After all, isn’t it more ‘honest’ to have something where you need it, and allow it to become a part of our environment? Why hide something that is an undeniable part of our life? With cameras, photographers need to control the aperture, shutter speed and ISO — settings we hope to use intuitively, even in poor light, sometimes without looking. Obviously, we don’t want dozens of buttons, all the same, with unfathomable labels like: d1 d2 d3 d4 d5, but sometimes we do need an appropriate level of complexity. It must be arranged properly though. Different groups of people need different levels of control, flexibility, and sophistication, all of which alters the overall complexity. Designed simplicity is deciding how much choice to give the user. It’s about getting the right balance for your audience — a balance that’s easy to misjudge.

2017–04–27


Cold brew coffee

Long, long, ago, in a forgotten world where people listened to scratchy vinyl ‘LPs’ and lovers sent mix-tapes to one another to express their emotional reach, cold coffee was contemptuous, only worthy of the kitchen sink. But, firmly entrenched in a new millennium where the future is retro, where the possible is impossible and where the impossible is happening. This isn’t ‘fake news’ — it’s official, cold coffee is ‘a thing’.

Unlike those fortunate people who live in an eternally sunny clime, places where the tomatoes are sweet and the local feta salads taste like paradise; where old men spend their post-siesta afternoon outside a crumbling café armed with a glass of iced-latte and yesterday’s newspaper—occasionally glancing up to watch the fishing boats bobbing up and down in the sheltered waters of some adorably unspoilt harbour… England’s weather is more conducive to piping hot coffee, and British culture — sadly — more likely to produce the commercial franchise coffee shop, over-hyped marketing deals, loyalty cards and scripted customer interactions. And, all the while, serving up tasteless Americanos. Yes, there is some great coffee to be had here, but you must search it out. So… it’s with this baggage in mind that cold brew coffee arrives and many will, no doubt, have a healthy dose of skepticism.

What is it, and what’s it like?

Instead of leaving a normally brewed coffee to get cold, a proper cold brew is coarsely ground coffee steeped in water for a length of time (usually overnight, sometimes up to 24 hours). The proviso here is ‘good’ (should I say ‘authentic’) cold brew coffee, because a quality cold brew tastes different to any coffee you’ve probably had before. The fusion of flavours is not the same as a regular hot coffee. Cold brew is more refined, more delicate — nuanced you might say.

And now there’s a new kind of cold brew the nitro cold brew. It sounds vaguely dangerous, like some form of turbocharged racing fuel. This is cold brew coffee with the Guinness Draft treatment. It’s infused with tiny nitrogen bubbles to give the coffee a creamy consistency and a stout-like head. I was dubious about cold brew and its nitro sibling (did someone say the word gimmick?), but it’s definitely more than ‘interesting’, it’s actually very enjoyable. I can see why some people approach cold brew with a connoisseur-like appreciation more akin to craft beer or wine. Sandows produces a delicious cold brew that’s beautifully packaged in a pocket flask-sized glass bottle (the sort more typically associated with whisky or brandy). The Sandows is not cheap, but it has a genuinely unusual flavour and gorgeous packaging. Tasting Sandows does bring up associations of an alcoholic beverage, and people are starting to drink cold brew and ‘nitro coffee’ as alternatives to wine and beer — cocktails even. Don’t be dismissive. Variety is a good thing and offering non-alcoholic drinks to people in clubs and bars, can only be positive.

There will be doubters. I can understand why you might not want a cold brew coffee at 6.17am on a freezing, gloomy winter’s morning. Each to their own I say. Some people choose a breakfast Red Bull to drink on the Tube, but that’s something I’ve never understood. Maybe served in the evening with vodka and ice (and frankly I’m not convinced that feeling more ‘alert’ while you’re getting inebriated is a good thing), but hey. It’s a free world. Sort of. You know what I mean. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone puts their cold brew through a Sodastream and we have sparkling coffee.

In the meantime, I don’t want to preach, but cold brew isn’t just for hipsters and weirdo beards — there’s something to this. The question is: will cold brew become a permanent ‘thing’ like Frappuccino? Or will it be the forgotten ‘alt’ drink of 2017?

2017–05–04


Apple’s brave new world

Apple’s annual pre-holiday season big-reveal has become an institution. If only Midnight Mass was as popular. This year’s event was no exception, speakers excitedly jogging on stage, grinning with delight or donning looks of earnest worthiness — showing off ‘amazing’ and ‘magical’ new devices. Everything shiny and slick. Every surface a mirror-like reflection. Your old iDevice. Garbage. Throw it away and order the ‘amazing’ and ‘magical’ new one. Everything pristine and perfect — all you could possibly desire.

The annual pre-holiday iEvent is a celebration of getting things right, a celebration of success. A simple purchase provides membership to Apple’s ‘ecosystem’ and permission to become a ‘fanboi’ and participate in the sycophantic ticker-tape parade. In a post-patriotic world, corporate driven excitement is the new worship. Buying your iProduct is a smart choice: which makes us smart iPeople. Every year—better products, even more seductively reflective surfaces (more fingerprint magnets), and bigger profits. Shops used to sell stuff. Browsers wandered around the dusty shelves glancing at the dishevelled stock — books that had been fingered through, clothes that had been tried on and rejected. Grumpy shop assistants lurked in the dim corners, shirking customer contact, loitering in-between their extended tea breaks, avoiding eye-contact with shoppers until the safely of closing time beckoned. As annoying as grumpy shop assistants are, we tolerate them, knowing that they have low paid jobs and, have to politely tolerate annoying customers, and probably the odd manager or two who imagines him or herself as the next step in human evolution. How would we be if we were working there over the Christmas holiday? Not much different probably.

Now the dusty shelves, the dank and shadowy niches that typified the nooks and crannies of old-school shops are all but extinct. The science of the retail experience has banished them into oblivion — an out-dated vestige of a previous century. Smelly carpets and gnarled fittings have been replaced with fastidious, OCD neatness: a bright and pristine interior of the Apple store resembles an art gallery. Squeaky clean, filled with Apple t-shirted Geniuses (bearing an eerie resemblance to the colour coded crew of USS Enterprise — but no red shirts in the mix here, hopefully). Every Genius comes pre-programmed with more scripted prompts and response loops than the androids in Westworld. The Geniuses talk in pleasantly quiet tones, echoing the algorithm of their genetic base code: Johnathan Ive 2.0 — cranking out rehearsed prompts, affirmations, and redirected attention. They inhabit a peculiar landscape known as The Grove: part Guggenheim, part Zen garden. This relentlessly Modernist savanna — there for the browsers to roam, their native ecosystem, is a respite from the immaculate product tables. The Grove is a place of comfort, a place where the anointed heal the sick and confused. It is permeated with magical power, something akin to ‘the zone’ in Stalker. All in all, the Apple store is no longer a store. It’s the ‘Town Square’—sculpted with premium materials, marble stairs, glass, light coloured wood, and clinically clean trees growing in oversized containers.

‘Yes, it’s amazing…’ a Genius reassures a browser. ‘I have one in white. It’s really great. I love it.’

It’s easy to be lulled by the trees and the marble, the neatly arranged tables and the helpful advisors who police the Town Square. Everything is slick and seductively pristine — a shop without cash tills or queues. The whole store could have come out of a shrink-fit wrapper that a Genius ripped open at 6.30AM this morning. The ‘Town Square’, a big iDevice box. You might expect it to smell of ‘brand new’, like a new car — that strangely pleasant chemical whiff. But this smells of something without any discernible whiff. Success. It’s truly Modernist in every way, very Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931) very H. G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come (1933) which is an interesting comparison in a Post-Modern world. All that beautiful design, the calm Genius voices corralling anxious browsers off the product tables, shepherding them to the safety of the Grove; like the android policemen in THX-1138, guiding the passive, medicated-masses with their babified commands:

Everything will be all right. You are in my hands. I am here to protect you. You have nowhere to go. You have nowhere to go.

2017–12–06


Procrastination heaven

We live in an efficiency-obsessed, productivity focused world — sometimes there’s much to be said for taking a step back, and slowing down, because there’s more to life than hitting impossible targets.

You need downtime, your mind needs a creative space — daydreams and moments of personal reflection.

Don’t let them take all the poetry out of life, develop your procrastination skills to a higher level. And, never forget that good things — stress reduction, peace of mind, and occasionally some brilliant ideas — originate from procrastination.


Here are some ways to achieve procrastination heaven:

2017–02–28


The New Up!

In this advert for the new up! — Volkswagen’s city car — a metallic yellow up! bathes in sunshine, parked in an attractive cobbled street, outside Cafe Rivas (which one assumes is somewhere in continental Europe).

In this idealised image six people are visible: at first one may wonder which of them owns this vehicle. Then we realise that we — the viewer — most likely own it. The scenario reads like we’ve just parked it and we’re walking away; turning around to lock the doors, and in the process, we can’t help but admire it. The image speaks about the car, and the car’s owner — it speaks about us. First of all, like us it’s perfectly at home in this environment, which reflects its chic urban sophistication — but it has its ‘feet on the ground’.

The owner knows where to go for a great coffee, and a pastry to go with it perhaps. He or she is cool, contemporary, slightly edgy (see the graffiti on the wall along from the cafe), but sensible. The location has character, but it’s in no way run down; we guess its probably been gentrified at some point, possibly an old district of the city that has recently been developed and is now a sought-after place to own a flat — sorry, I meant ‘apartment’. While the location is likely to be France, it could be any European city. The Cafe Rivas looks like it services meals, and drinks, cocktails even. A person could almost live there, breakfast, brunch, lunch, cocktails, dinner, and late drinks. But the owner of an up! isn’t the kind of person who would spend their entire day and night in a cafe/bar — they are far too busy getting on with their life. (And the kind of person who would spend all day in a bar probably wouldn’t spend it in that one.) Although the owner has a hip side to their personality, they are also quite wisely cautious — they don’t make rash decisions — and think of themselves as quite traditional (but not old fashioned). The owner might work in the media industry, maybe even for the agency that developed this advert for Volkswagen. Having selected such a scenic spot to park their car, they obviously have an aesthetic eye. The people around the car echo its character, and again, from that, the car’s owner: the person about to exit the cafe, the woman in the bright yellow dress, the couple meeting in the cafe, the woman seated outside the cafe with her coffee and pastry, and the man in the blue jacket who is about to enter the building next to the cafe. The man meeting the woman inside the cafe wears a flamboyant, flowery shirt. Everyone looks like a model.

Why is that man going into the building? He’s carrying something under his left arm, a package: a gift, or office files? Judging by the relatively short shadows this could be late morning or early afternoon. Perhaps he is going home for lunch, or visiting his girlfriend? Nothing is explicit. The woman in yellow might know him? It could even be her apartment he is visiting. None of these people are the central character in this story, they are extras with walk-on parts. The car is the hero, and by association, us — the owner. The up! is a fun, city car, that looks good, and is a sensible buy. It’s a choice. It’s an aspiration. The advertising copy claims it’s an ‘extension of your style’. It comes with all the things that matter: ‘over a thousand potential colour combinations’, and ‘advanced connectivity’, ‘your car is an extension of your smartphone, with music, satnav, and search options at your fingertips’ — ‘It fits seamlessly with your lifestyle’. As sophisticated connoisseurs, ‘we get it’.

We are smart enough to know that there are cheaper options out there, but quality is everything — and buying anything else would be like having coffee in the wrong neighbourhood.

2016–01–10


British post-War identity

The Second World War, the crucible that defined post-war, post-colonial British identity, taught Britons to ‘mend and make do’, ‘keep your chin up’, and maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’. The civilian resilience shown during the London Blitz, the quiet determination and cheeky humour, meant that whatever Hitler threw at Londoners they would keep on going, ensuring it was ‘business as usual’. Even the heroics of the RAF fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain represented a certain unassuming British modesty: refusing to draw to much attention to oneself.

After the war, a bankrupt Britain hit the austerity years, but managed to cobble together the money for universal health care (1948), to produce the ‘welfare state’ (1946), subsidised council housing, and nationalised public transport and utilities. Socialism was the nation’s reward for its wartime sacrifice. Meanwhile, the anti-fascist ideals of wartime Britain had led to less appetite (and physical ability) to run an Empire. When the country financially recovered, in the 1950s, consumerism had taken off (especially television ownership), and services were becoming more corporate (local independent shops were competing with supermarkets). The 1960s saw ‘swinging London’ — a high point for ‘brand UK’ — but also saw the conflict in Northern Ireland. By the 1970s growth had stalled and Britain was experiencing serious economic problems: European and Japanese industrial competitors were pushing British products out of the market — British products were more expensive, less reliable, and poorly marketed — and a byproduct of losing the Empire was also a loss of guaranteed markets for British manufacturing.

Thatcherism was the 1980s antidote to British industrial decline. How much of this radical transformation was actually necessary, and how much was simply spiteful, or ideological dogma, is anyone’s guess. What Thatcherism did see was a lurch to the right, rolling back the so-called ‘nanny state’ — privatising the nationalised industries and utilities. It also saw the Falklands War, and the perception from overseas observers that Britain was back on track as a functioning state. From 1997 to 2007 Blairite ‘New Labour’ headed to the centre-right in order to win an election. New Labour was a vocal supporter of the Iraq war (2003) with the famous justification for war: Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, or ‘weapons of mass destruction’. It also saw large-scale deregulation of the financial markets, which eventually contributed to the global financial meltdown in 2007.

Today, in the shadow of the Brexit referendum, there’s wide-ranging anxiety about Britain’s future. What does it mean to be British? What is Britain’s role in the world? These aren’t new questions. They are at the heart of post-war British identity. The nation tried socialism, things became shambolic, and then the right rolled back state control. The Empire has long gone, but there’s still a dilemma about the UK’s role in the world. And now, it appears, that the pan-Europeanism of the ‘European Project’ has been rejected.

Beyond ‘brand UK’ — the Union Jack’s waving at the last night at the Proms, and the Olympic athletes dressed in their Team GB kit — there’s a world of run-down shopping centres, Pound shops, betting shops, and people in grey Primark tracksuits. Where once these people may have felt a certain pride: that they had built the world around them, made the things that had been sold all over the world — what did these people have now? With 11% of its economy based on manufacturing, Britain no longer makes as many things as it once did. The world is choice full of Chinese engineering projects and German industrial robots. The UK has a service based economy, and the City of London. Where does it leave ordinary people outside of that bubble?

The philosophy today appears to be ‘everyone to themselves’, it’s a ‘dog eat dog’ world. Once, the British establishment needed the working class to run the nation’s labour intensive industrial base, and defend the Empire. Global capitalism has no loyalties. Histories and narratives can be cut at any moment — the only constant: shareholder profit. The general rule of thumb being: people seem to complain less when there’s money in the economy.

Is Britishness breaking apart?

The Nationalist community in Northern Ireland seeks to be part of the Irish story, and many Scots desire an independent Scottish nation. Identity is about choosing where we belong: people choose where they feel they can be themselves and enjoy greater prosperity. In other parts of the UK people have regressed to a more tribal version of Britishness — ‘the cocky Brits versus the rest of the world’, but this usually gets in the news for all the wrong reasons: xenophobia, and mistrust.

By the end of the 20th Century British ‘toleration’ had been rolled into a kind of liberal multiculturalism — ‘the Empire had come home’. British restraint had given way to the boastful and vulgar showiness of conspicuous consumption. Britain was a nation of different ethnicities, and religions: its armed forces, Police, National Health Service, composed of men and women from different ethnicities, and religions. They drank Italian cappuccino, Indian style curries, French lager, drove German cars, and watched US television shows like Homeland and Game of Thrones. It was a world of living and breathing liberal internationalism.

But the global economy and markets have not worked for everyone. Now British identity is a story of division — unable to agree on its role in the European project, divided by an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and challenged by the rival narratives of Irish and Scottish identity. Britain has played with post-war socialism, Thatcherism, and New Labour — what’s next?

2016–02–27


Spirits adverts in ‘The New Yorker’ (1975)

The upmarket New Yorker, targeted at affluent, educated, metropolitan sophisticates — which, if it was explained in a venn diagram would include a circle that intersected with ‘establishment’, ‘the elite’, and ‘conservative liberal’. It’s a premium space for advertisers to promote their products to consumers who expect to pay for quality.

With this audience in mind, spirits distributors placed what they hoped would be seductive adverts in the magazine. Looking back at these, they are not so much a record of premium tastes that existed in 1975, so much as a document of what advertisers hoped they could establish as the de facto market leader. The sales technique associates the product with a lifestyle the audience aspires to, or reflects how they wish to be seen by others. It reinforces a belief about the buyer.

The Johnnie Walker Red whisky advert appeals to ‘generous taste’, the connoisseur who can recognise quality, and the popularity associated with generosity. The image of two men and two women at a beach house overlooking the sea, enjoying a barbecue and a whisky with ice; this is a statement of social and financial success. These attractive people, enjoying the sunshine, dressed in swimwear, engaged in interesting and amusing conversation epitomise affluent, liberal thinking. Where are they? On the Hamptons? California? Florida? It doesn’t matter — they are in a place called Success. And that’s where the audience wants to be.

The Canadian Club advert is targeting an active and confident audience, but is also the kind of person who likes to be reissued by a product’s pedigree (hence the prominent badge of royal approval). The text is made up of quotes from the ‘person’ we assume is in the photos. The random snippets, as if from a magazine interview, lend the advert a funky spontaneity. The character is basically a persona who represents the brand image. He is likeable, knows how the world works, plays hard and works hard (but the good things in life, we imagine, come easy to him). He is an alpha male, an achiever who knows how to get ahead. He gets what he wants. He is, in short, a winner. The JB Rare whisky advert features an attractive blue-eyed woman who epitomises what the target audience desires in a woman, and by association what the advert wants the audience to associate with the brand. She is fashionably contemporary without being showy. Tastefully restrained. Classy. This is quality that doesn’t have to shout about it — much like the audience. The thing with looks, or intelligence, is that you have it or you do not. And if you’ve got it — enjoy it. As the text says: ‘Rare taste. Either you have it. Or you don’t.’ The message urges the audience to bypass logic and accept the simple fact: JB Rare has ‘it’. You know it, so enjoy it. No other justification is required.

The Strega advert paints a ‘sensual’ picture of timeless luxury and romance. The classic male hero seduces a beautiful woman after an exquisite meal. The impression is one of doing things the traditional way — the age old art of seduction. The Italian spirit Strega is part of a romantic mindset — the art of seduction. Strega is more than just a delicious drink for the connoisseur, it’s an elixir, a magical love potion. It will imbue you with special powers. And, like love, it might make you feel slightly light-headed.

2016–01–04


Car adverts in ‘The New Yorker’ (1975)

Dodge hoped the Charger Daytona would be the irresistible gift a man had to give himself. Especially if he was slightly older, and interested in injecting some sporty vitality into his life. The Charger, is as its name suggests, is a modern-day horse — a horse for a knight or cavalry officer. With a charger, a man can go anywhere — do anything. And yet this was not a commercial version of a pedigree racing car (like the original ‘muscle car’ version), but a rebadged Chrysler Cordoba, in what at the time was called the ‘personal luxury’ market.

With the US automobile industry suffering from the impact of the 1973 oil crisis, sports, or muscle car sales were down in the dumps. Charger sales had peaked in 1973 and fell dramatically in 1974, so this campaign was part of an initiative to rebuild sales. This mid-sized luxury car had ‘high-end trim’ and a self-consciously sporty look, although its ‘racy look’ was just visual styling. The Charger boasted blue leather seats, chrome trim, and a polished wooden dashboard. It didn’t have a clock — it had a ‘Chronometer’. Regardless of its styling, it was an all-American car (even if it was actually manufactured in Ontario, Canada).

The Triumph TR7 advert is striking because it looks very 1980s, instead of 1975. The sleek font, the bold graphic design, the glossy reflections, the back and electric red almost feels new wave. This is, after all, ‘The shape of things to come’. But, like the struggling US automobile industry, the British car industry, now amalgamated into the nationalised British Leyland, was also in difficulty, and desperate to flog its goods to America: the TR7 only launched in the UK a year later. Unfortunately, the car suffered from quality control issues, commonly attributed to industrial relations issues between the management and the factory workforce — this affected its reputation. The advert’s tagline ‘From the land of British Racing Green’ probably wouldn’t have made any sense to an American audience, especially considering the car is pictured in red.

The Jaguar XJ-12, another British Leyland product, was a luxury family saloon with a performance engine. Here it’s pictured on a lawn in front of a country home. It’s a ‘class of one’ because it was the only V-12 production saloon in 1975 — perfect for those high oil prices. The copy goes into extensive detail about the warranty, which is ’20,000 miles or 12 months’ for ‘any part of the car that is defective or simply wears out’ — hardly confidence inspiring. The Jaguar was an attractive, but conservatively styled saloon, with a powerful engine. With hindsight one wonders if the more performance minded segment of the US market were also looking for more flamboyant styling? Also, how appealing would an old country home be to an American audience — especially a predominantly metropolitan one reading The New Yorker? This definitely feels like it’s communicating a mixed message.

2016–01–12


Stories of national identity and self

National identity is a tricky subject. It encompasses the pride of belonging, clichés, and stereotypes. The stories of national identity appeal to out need to belong.

There are the obvious expressions of national identity: language, dress, food, sports, religion, ways of behaving, social customs, and so on. And there are the subtle traits that pass almost unnoticed.

How should we make sense of ‘British’ national identity, beyond the cliché of tourist merchandise, the ‘I Love London’ t-shirts, and the plastic ‘Made in China’ Big Ben key rings? Being ‘British’ means different things to different people.

The stories of national identity are complex, bubbling cauldrons of associations, interpretations imbued with historical resonance. They are also connected to our own identity.

Who controls these stories?

National identity likes to be defined by what it is, but it is also defined by what it is not. It is inclusive and exclusive. Scottish identity, for example, is partly defined as Scottishness, as well as not being English. English identity is partly defined as not being Continental.

The mirror of who we think we are, is part of the mirror of how others perceive us. It is a complex web of associations, and memories.

The stories that surround national identity, like other stories, are shared, and embellished, the emphasis changes as they are retold. There two main story types — celebrations, and warnings — and these are reflected in national identities. Much of Russian national identity is defined by the perceived threat of Western Europe (a warning), and the resilience of the Russian people (a celebration).

When people stop believing the story, the narrative breaks apart. That is what we are seeing happen in the UK. An increasing number of people do not feel like they are part of the story, or never felt part of the story.

For intellectual, and emotional reasons, people need to believe in something beyond themselves. When the national identity fails to convince them, they choose a more convincing story.

A world without borders and boundaries is something that we aspire too, but we keep returning to city walls because nations are there to emotionally reassurance us that we are safe from those outside of our story.

2016–02–18


‘Bait’

Here’s a weird one — Bait (2019) superficially feels like an art school film, but it’s not because of the attention to detail, the sound, the film-score, the story, and the editing, it’s all very accomplished.

The hand-processed film has that kind of ‘fuck-off’ anti-quality with its scratches and accidental solarisation (which is actually a challenge to achieve in a consistent and aesthetically pleasing way). This kind of analogue love reminds me of Tricky in the 1990s incorporating the crackling and scratches from his favourite (sampled) LPs — likewise, Bait is an unashamed homage to analogue. It’s telling that Mark Jenkin (the director, camera operator, screenwriter, editor, and producer) chose to use a wind-up, 16mm Bolex camera for a film released in 2019, when he could have achieved superior quality (with much greater convenience) using an iPhone and Final Cut easily converting the digital files to monochrome.

Bait could literally have been made in the 1950s or even the 1930s. It’s a handmade film using home darkroom processing techniques. Watching it, (apart from the modern cars and people sitting in front of laptop computers) there’s little real of sign of the modern world. Bait plays to the history of cinema and politically it’s as if the film is saying that nothing has really changed in the world. The sound has been added in post production through dubbing, which heightens the retro feel.

Most of the shots are tight, close-ups of objects and faces with an emphasis on the rhythmic cuts between shots (although there’s a un-fancy documentary feel there’s none of that shaky handheld stuff here or, in the other direction, slick Hollywood-style crane work) it’s all pretty much static shots.

There’s a powerful sequence which is completely silent and draws on the rhythm of the editing, the menace of possibility between the individual shots. It encapsulates the tension between the dying fishing industry and the insurgent ‘tourists’ — a classic confrontation between the working-class locals and the business-owning middle-class invaders.

2020–03–22


‘Monos’

One of my favourite words at the moment is ‘bonkers’ and Monos (2019) definitely comes within this category with its weird electronic music (that’s totally incongruous for the wilds of South America but perfectly expresses the dysfunctionally surreal situation of teenage soldiers waging a guerrilla war in ‘the middle of nowhere’). This could have been an unbelievably cruel and dark film (there is violence and darkness) but its empathy for the characters, its non-judgemental tone, the weird music, the beautiful setting, and the youthful joyousness of the teenage soldiers makes it incredibly human and life affirming.

2020–03–22


‘The Virgin Suicides’

The Virgin Suicides (1999) is a remarkable film adaptation of the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides.

The novel uses the unusual first-person plural viewpoint — ‘we’ — for a group of boys, which feels completely right for the story. There’s an intriguing lit-fic ambiance fused with horror tropes — the creepy neighbourhood house where weird things happen, the basement lair, the house ‘possessed’ by evil spirits (or in this case, the mother’s puritanical Christianity). Both the novel and film evoke a strong sense of time, and place — nostalgia and loss.

2019–08–11


‘Arlington Park’

Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park (2006) begins with rain, and more rain. It’s rainy. And when the rain stops, we get passive-aggressive anger. Quite a lot of it. I’m getting notes of strawberry and hint of lemon flavour… oh, and hint of John Cheever. But this is a story from the ‘other side’, which is to say, the wife of Bullet Park… or Arlington Park. It feels like the anger should have bubbled away as subtext, or the protagonist should really have gone for it and blown the place apart… or something. Anything. Instead, it doesn’t really go anywhere, not that it should. The Outline trilogy has a great concept, presented in a throwaway style — ‘nothing much’ ado about the Middle-Class — but this feels like it is missing something.

2019–08–17


‘Stranger Things’ (season 3)

Stranger Things (Season 3) is back on track after a iffy second season. We return to the formula from Season 1: kid-adulthood, adult dysfunction, and a dark mirror-version of the town, below ground, where bad things come from. Season 2 was desperate to impress on us new characters and show that the kids are growing up. This season achieves so much more, without telegraphing the message along the way. The CGI is better too. The whole season seems more comfortable with itself, because it’s not trying so hard.

2019–08–16


‘Red Dawn’

Red Dawn (1984) is a surreal time capsule from the 1980s, and the Cold War. It features Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey who went on to star together in Dirty Dancing (1987). The film echoes right-wing US values of independence and freedom — the right to bear arms Vs the ‘Evil Empire’. It’s a cocktail of the Western and Afghanistan-style guerrilla warfare against Cuban and Soviet invaders. A cheesy and brilliantly-dated document from another time.

2019–08–08


Where is ‘Westworld’ going? (again)

It’s March 2020 and I’ve finished episode 1, season 3 of Westworld. Back in 2016 (was it really that long ago?) I wrote about my first impressions of episode 1 and 2 of season 1. Back then I was curious how and why the guns only killed the hosts and not the guests. This discrepancy seemed odd at the time (it was later explained away through story ‘magic’, a slightly meh high tech solution that didn’t really convince). This, and other inconsistencies, suggested that the whole resort might be a virtual reality experience.

Right now none of those weird inconsistencies bothers me because it seems like they’re technical details and not significant clues.

Another snag for me was… Why does a host allow a fly to walk across its eyeballs? Wouldn’t that creep out the guests? The answer is probably because it provides a powerful visual motif. It’s part of the visually dramatic storytelling.

It was obvious that the hosts would develop a ‘human-like consciousness’ and eventually rebel against the guests and the resort’s creators (along the lines of the original Westworld film from 1973). In 2016 I thought that the hosts and humans would work together and against one another in different ways, for and against host emancipation (much like the Planet of the Apes films). It was also clear that there would be other resort experiences as well — in the original 1973 Westworld it was Roman World, and Medieval World — like the samurai and British Raj experience (among others, we assume).

What about the outside world? In 2016 I wrote:

It’s likely that at some point the audience will be offered a glimpse of the world outside of the West World resort. What would that look like? It could be something of a shock; or it might resemble today’s world, in a mundane way; it could be a dystopian nightmare (suffering from pollution and repression); or a high tech world devoid of excitement and challenge.

I also noted a particular problem facing the writers… if these incredibly human-like androids are so lifelike and practically useful around the resort…

…why are they not being used in the real world as care assistants, oil rig workers, domestic helpers, cleaners, factory workers, etc, etc?

Westworld could have turned into a crisis management story (typical of the medical story, or war story) with the resort’s management constantly fighting for control over the resort’s rebellious hosts (who are also battling between themselves) with the external world being less important (a slightly technically more advanced version of ours). But that scenario could become boring.

The big problem with season 2 was that our empathy for the main host characters was killed off when they turned ‘evil’ and there was nothing to replace it. It didn’t help that the story was confusing.

So far, season 3 feels more influenced by Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049. Is this where the series is heading?


2020–03–22


‘Westworld’ (season 3)

As stunning as Westworld season 1 was, season 2 was a disappointment. The production values were great but the story missed the mark somehow. What went wrong?

There were too many new characters who were ‘red shirts’ (cannon fodder), or there to duct tape the plot together. Then there were those favourite characters who’d become annoying (dithering to facilitate other things in the plot) or turned ‘evil’ (for the same reason). It felt as if the violent action had taken precedence over character development.

Westworld had borrowed from the Lost playbook of hooking the audience by posing unanswered questions and instead of answering them, posing yet further questions. This kind of manoeuvre can break the unwritten contact between writer and audience — if the story makes promises it has to deliver on them.

It’s something of a cliché, but a rock band’s second album is always considered something of a creative conundrum (balancing newfound success and hype with a discipline and focus on the artistic basics). The long arc TV series often has similar issues. How to develop the creativity of an already successful ‘product’ while retaining the audiences’ interest (who most likely want more of the same) and dealing with the newfound over-confidence resulting from success? It’s also a technical challenge of realigning a ‘pilot season’ into a longer arc. The answer to this realignment is a question of identity — what’s the story really about.

Stranger Things also had a lacklustre season 2, but it got back on track by returning to the formula that made season 1 so successful. Westworld seems to be following a similar pattern. The opening episode of season 3 picks up on the goodness of season 1. It feels like something is happening again. We have a new human protagonist to vouch for (although he could be killed off at any moment).

Violent action is all very well, but at some point it become pointless if you don’t care about the characters.

2020–03–21


‘Planet of the Apes’

I’ve been meaning to read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963) for a while. I’ve seen the 1975 Hollywood film a number of times. It’s something of a cultural icon. But it’s always surprised me how the author of The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952) could also have written Planet of the Apes. They seem so entirely different.

Whatever you think about Charlton Heston, the 1975 adaptation, written by Rod Serling (the creator of The Twilight Zone) is a superb script — and it’s significantly different from the novel.

The book opens with a wealthy couple on a leisure cruise in space. They notice a strange object floating towards them. On closer inspection it turns out to be a bottle with a message inside. I can’t say that this old fashioned message in a bottle device endeared me to the story, but the letter within it forms the main narrative.

In this narrative, an exploration team sets out to the far end of space. They end up on planet Soror. We meet the planet’s humans who are unable to speak and behave in an animal-like way. Then we meet the apes who can speak and have human-like intelligence. The monkey world of Soror closely resembles that of 20th Century Earth.

Much of the story explores Ulysse’s experience while being examined by apes in a research laboratory. After proving his intelligence to Zira and her fiancee, Cornelius, they arrange for him to address a gathering of influential apes. Ulysse’s speech is a success and he is given his personal freedom. But, unable to protect him, or guarantee his continued liberty, Zira and Cornelius help Ulysse, Nova and their baby son to escape.

During a discussion it’s revealed that Soror’s ancient human ancestors were once the dominant species, but they became enfeebled by their increasing reliance on apes. Eventually, they were cast out into camps outside the cities where they gradually turned feral.

After successfully escaping from the monkey planet Ulysse, Nova and their baby return to Earth. They land at Orly Airport and are met by officials in a jeep, only to discover that the airport officials are apes. That part of the story ends, and we return to the rich couple on their vacation in space (the ones who found the message in a bottle). They find the story absurd, believing it to be a joke — because they too, are apes. Intelligent humans? How ridiculous! Then Jinn ‘began to manipulate the driving levers, using his four nimble hands’, and Phyllis ‘took out her compact’ and ‘touched up her dear little chimpanzee muzzle’. The novel has two shock endings, one following directly after the other.

Although the novel is quite an intellectual mind-game, as a story I prefer Rod Serling’s film version. The gloriously simple visual reveal at the end is cinematic genius, and the 1975 film seems to make more chronological sense. To put it in simple terms it’s just more satisfying.

I’ve always assumed that the 1975 film was a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, but this isn’t the case. Now, having finally read Planet of the Apes I can see parallels with The Bridge over the River Kwai. They are both post-Second World War novels about human folly.

2019–02–07


Adventures in space

We take it as a given that the human story is integrally woven into this world, our ecosystems, the land and the sea — planet Earth. When we leave the bounds of this planet we’re literally taken out of our element. Any story that takes place in space or on distant planets is a relatively new kind of story, a new kind of adventure.

Space stories go by many names: science fiction, space fantasy, space opera, voyages extraordinaires, parallel worlds, planetary romance stories, space westerns, the space quest, the first contact story — call them what you prefer.

Proto space fiction has a long, but esoteric, history in literature. Amazing Stories popularised the mainstream space story during the 1920s with serialised fiction. One of those stories, The Skylark in Space, by E E Smith went beyond the time travel / inter-dimensional dream story (the hero waking up on Mars, for example), because it involved the creation of a space ship — the means of implementing interplanetary travel.

Interplanetary travel in the film world begins with films like Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902). This early film incorporated space travel and alien beings living on the moon into the story, but the mainstream space story in cinema really took off in the 1930s when pulp fiction serials and comic strips were adapted for the big screen with film serials like Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. These stories combined exploration and adventure, futurism and retro-futurism (harems, sword fights, and costumes from Ancient China). They were a fusion of influences, merging the ‘exotic’ with the swashbuckling high seas yarn, and the journey into a new land.

Flash Gordon is a classic example of the 1930s space opera. It involves a ‘rocket ship’ that travels across space to the planet Mongo, the discovery of non-human races, advanced technology, mind control, death rays (and other terrible weapons), and a grand power struggle between an Imperial ruler and subjugated peoples.

The visual look of the space craft in Flash Gordon fused a bullet with a bomb’s tail-fin. It was inspired by Art Deco streamlining, aeroplane design, and performance engines (the craft’s ‘exhaust pipes’). The costume design was out-of-this-world: sexed-up sports leisure wear, retro-futurism, the Arabesque, Imperial China, Ancient Roman, and Medieval European outfits. The inspiration for Mongol’s ‘breeds’ (as his subjects are disparagingly referred to) are straight out of Ancient Greek literature, half-animal beings, winged men, and lion people.

The story features Flash Gordon, an all-American hero who, along with his two earthling friends Dale Arden (feisty and beautiful) and Dr Hans Zarkov (nerd-in-space), help us to make sense of this strange world. Flash Gordon puts himself in danger to pursue justice, and saves Earth from the destruction at the hands of the tyrannical Ming. Flash caps it off by falling in love with Dale Arden.

The world of Flash Gordon is brought to life by the various ‘breeds’ of Emperor Ming’s subjects (‘world building’). Each tribe has their own distinct characteristics and lives on their own planet or city, which has a specific environment. Flash Gordon’s goal is to unite the squabbling factions against Ming. There’s a sense of good prevailing against evil, with Flash Gordon as the heroic saviour.

In Forbidden Planet (1956) a scientist and his daughter, and their robot (the only remains of an interplanetary expedition) are visited by a rescue team intent on investigating the mysterious disappearance of the expedition. This space story’s strong Freudian influence, its electronic soundtrack, and special effects created a more realistic, mysterious and atmospheric vision of life on another planet.

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the thinking person’s space story. It bumped up the realism of interplanetary space travel, taking it to new heights. It threw in questions about the meaning of life, space as the new landscape, and a psycho AI.

Star Wars (1977) returned the space adventure back to its roots, back to the original 1930s film serials. It had action, adventure, romance, a story with good triumphing against evil, drama, and more drama — possibly making it the definitive space story.

Since Star Wars we’ve had Dune (1984), which was something like an art performance in space (or at least an Independent movie in space), and space comedies Spaceballs, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Galaxy Quest. The 1980 remake of Flash Gordon was quite faithful to the original, but with a camp inflection. We’ve had the planetary romance of Avatar (2009), and John Carter (2012).

The space story has thrived on television with: Lost in Space, Battlestar Galactica (1978–1979 and 2004–2009), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979–1981), Red Dwarf (1988–1999, 2009, 2012), Babylon 5 (1993–1998), Stargate (1994–2011), Doctor Who (1963 onwards) and Star Trek.

The post-Star Wars space story continues with Interstellar (2014), which reaffirms the space story in a climate where NASA’s funding is being cut, where America’s boundless optimism has been clipped and people question the relevance of travelling in space. In Interstellar we get the global eco-threat facing Earth, which creates a new call to adventure, a brilliantly minimalist robot (with a sense of humour), and a tesseract in space that resonates with metaphysical implication. There’s still life out there in space.

2019–02–01


‘Blast of Silence’

A hitman returns to New York, his home-town, to carry out one last job, but things go wrong.

Straight from the opening of 1961s Blast of Silence, a black screen with the gravelly voice of the narrator speaking directly to the audience, the film offers a different take on the classic Film Noir.

Remembering. Out of the black silence you were born in pain.

The voice-over is spoken in the second person (‘you’). The narrator is outside of the story looking in, omniscient, seemingly all knowing, goading and mocking the protagonist, sometimes condescending or patronising, sometimes anticipating the protagonist’s thoughts. At other times the narrator acts in the role of the protagonist’s conscience. It’s a bold stylistic device that’s perfectly exploited.

Slowly, a circle of light appears in the middle of the black screen. It turns out to be light at the end of a train tunnel. The protagonist is metaphorically born, and he arrives in New York getting off the train.

You were born with hate and anger built-in. Took a slap in the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive. Eight pounds, five ounces. Baby boy Frankie Bono.

Out of the tunnel, we are in New York a couple of days before Frankie Bono, a gangster hit man, has to murder a mobster from a rival syndicate — but things don’t work out.

Frankie Bono thinks that this is his last job. A life of killing, violence and death has taken its toll on him — the alienation and loneliness, constantly moving from city to city to evade the law. He’s like Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, there’s only so much a person can take. At some point a man doesn’t want to spend his entire life looking out behind him — he wants a rest, some human warmth.

The idea of having a relationship and a quiet, ordinary domestic life is alluring to Frankie Bono, but it’s an impossibility. He’s traumatised by his childhood experience. He has no family (we assume that he was given up for adoption, because we know that he was raised in an orphanage), and he’s been brutalised by violence and probably abuse. This dysfunctional history has made him an effective killer, but now he’s losing it. A women from his youth offers him a glimpse of the normal life that he’s never had, but he misreads her friendship and bungles their encounter.

The cinematography is shot in the Film Noir style, black and white with heavy shadows. The distinctive gravelly tone of the voice-over, and ambient jazz music provide an auditory motif to compliment the noir look. A scene in the club is almost completely without dialogue, the music does the talking. For an early 60s film it still feels remarkably fresh.

While it’s a very different film to Seconds (1966), both films share the same brutal fatalism. ‘A killer who doesn’t kill gets killed,’ the narrator goads Frankie. The narrator’s comments provide a revealing insight into Frankie Bono’s mindset, as well as creating empathy for an otherwise oppressively dark character.

Frankie Bono dispenses violence and is the victim of it. This late Film Noir has a trace of the Counter Culture about it, existential angst, and the French New Wave even with the gravelly voice of the narrator sounding like the narrator in Alphaville (1965). It’s not an easy film to watch, but the narrator keeps it moving with his dry humour, making it a rewarding experience, and certainly a memorable one.

And this is it, baby boy Frankie Bono. You’re alone now. All alone. The scream is dead. There’s no pain. You’re home again, back in the cold, black silence.

2019–02–12


‘The Dark Room’

Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room (2001) is made up of three separate novellas. The title of each story comes from the first name of the protagonist: ‘Helmut, ‘Lore’, and ‘Micha’. Although they are different stories they’re thematically related, because they are all about German identity, guilt, and the main character’s inner conflicts.

The first two stories take place during the Second World War, while the third one occurs during the 1990s. All of the stories have a brilliant sense of linear progression, and a gradual shift occurring in the central character’s internal world. In ‘Helmut’ the character’s feelings of guilt (because he is unfit for military service) run in parallel to the devastation of Berlin around him, which he chronicles as a photographer’s assistant. The increasing tension is palpable and culminates in Helmut eventually finding his place in a completely ruined and dysfunctional environment, seemingly unaware that the people around him have changed

In ‘Micha’ a soon to be father becomes suspicions about his grandfather’s role in the war, which might not be as innocuous as he would like to believe. When his suspicions are confirmed he gradually enters an increasingly dark place, questioning his family, human nature, and his own values. Like ‘Helmut’ there’s a sense of impending doom, and a journey into an uncomfortable place, both for the protagonist and the reader.

Rachael Seiffert does a great job at introducing deeply troubling themes while all the time ensuring that there’s enough depth to the characters to ensure that you keep reading. The stories explore realities where everything is complicated. These are in-between worlds where good and bad merge together and it’s a challenge to separate one from the other. It would be easy to judge these characters, but they are always given their space.

The language of these stories is remarkable. It’s simple, with literary flourishes that excite but never get in the way.

The second of the three stories ‘Lore’ follows a group of children wandering through war-torn Germany without adult supervision as they attempt to find their Grandmother’s house in Hamburg. It was made into the film Lore (2012), an emotional and shocking journey portrayed by brilliant child actors. The story in the film has been tweaked slightly, and I think I prefer it, but it’s mostly a faithful adaptation of the written story.

These are three powerfully told stories, each one different in its own way, gripping, and psychologically tense. They explore three troubling and uncomfortable situations, where the protagonists face difficult choices. Due to the subject matter it isn’t exactly a ‘light read’, but it’s a rewarding one.

2019–02–21


‘Falconer’

John Cheever wrote about suburban alienation, addiction, sexual confusion, loneliness, and self-repression. His protagonist Ezekiel Farragut in Falconer is all of the above.

When I read the novel Falconer (1977) I was reminded of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (2000). Ravelstein and Farragut are both flawed characters but they’re presented affectionately. Both novels have a tendency towards loftiness, grand observations, wry humour, and the celebration of a ‘great man’.

Whether you find this kind of literary writing intrusive or delightful, or intrusively delightful, both of these stories feature two quite different academics. Bellow’s Ravelstein is an affectionate portrait of a real life friend, while Farragut is Cheever’s fictionalisation of elements of his own life fused with his knowledge of prisons gained from teaching creative writing to inmates.

When John Cheever wrote the novel he was a recovering alcoholic, having survived a destructive period, been admitted to a clinic, dried out, and then set about writing a novel about a recovering drug addict coming to terms with his sexuality.

Farragut is imprisoned by his own lies, and by society. This becomes a physical prison when he’s incarcerated for murdering his brother. Farragut brutally murdered him, beating him to death with a fire poker, but he maintains that it was an ‘accident’. He learns that prison is full of people who are in there because of accidents and misunderstandings, but cannot relate this fact back to himself.

Farragut’s devotion to his drug habit elevates him above other men, as he sees it. When he later comes to terms with his sexual attraction to men, he embraces the belief that his sexual desires also mark him out as a superior person. Farragut’s self-reinvention, like everything else in his life, is a quasi-religious self-justification.

Falconer chronicles the long decline of the Farragut family, his father’s attempted suicide, the family’s fall from an upper middle-class lifestyle, to a modest one running a petrol station. Farragut’s imprisonment for murder only furthers the family’s decline.

The novel celebrates self-exceptionalism. Farragut should really be presented as a ‘piece of shit’ murderer and a skaghead. Instead, he’s presented as a sensitive, intelligent, aesthete, a connoisseur dining off the fumes of his own grandiosity. In this respect his akin to Humbert Humbert in Lolita a monster unable to see his own monstrous nature.

The hell of prison, becomes a heaven of self-revelation that leads to a rebirth (the escape from hell) and a new life.

The letters Farragut writes while in prison (complaining about his unjust treatment) present a comic record of his chronic self-importance, and the elitist delusion that he’s too good for prison. Ravelstein, on the other hand, is genuinely part of the elite, and he enjoys his place within it, but he is more interested in intellectual rigueur. He has integrity and he finds his own self-indulgence comically absurd.

While Cheever’s short story, ‘The Swimmer’, offers up a near perfect literary gem, Falconer, less successfully I’d argue, is shaped by a mish-mash of incongruous elements that never quite cohere. Cheever is brilliant at describing the suburban world, and the troubled inner landscape, but less successful at delivering the kind of plotted action that genre writers exploit. This is probably the least suspenseful prison escape I can remember. Much like the attempted murder in Bullet Park, it feels like a footnote.

The stories that Farragut hears from his prison circle are powerful in their own way, but they feel like a detour. They remind me of the narrator of Ravelstein, ‘Chick’ switching from his friend’s story to his own ill health. Cheever’s point is that Farragut’s pain is echoed in other people’s stories. While ‘Chick’ in Ravelstein is linking his near death experience to Ravelstein. Regardless, they feel superfluous, and tacked-on.

These novels are about men, and about men loving men. Women are belittled, weirdly peripheral, or irrelevant. Farragut complains about his wife and their marriage. He mentions their physical closeness and his love for her, but it feels like a consolation prize. In Ravelstein ‘Chick’ has a wonderful wife (who he blames for his ill health), but the warmth of his attention is always directed towards Ravelstein.

Falconer has the whiff of the confessional about it. Cheever is a witty and elegant writer but this novel doesn’t quite provide a satisfying story. What does endure, is its simple message: accept who you are, and ‘rejoice’ in being you.

2019–02–04


‘The Long Good Friday’

Some films get better with age, and The Long Good Friday (1980) is one of them. There’s Bob Hoskins at his very best as Harold Shand — a character terrifying, comic and vulnerable — and Helen Mirren, his posh other half. It’s a film about greed and the 1980s, a premonition of the decade to come, seven years before Wall Street and the ‘greed is good’ speech. The Long Good Friday is a film about violence, money, glitz, and property investment — the development of the London Docklands. Harold Shand is the meanest gangster of them all, and he’s about to make a fortune selling the Docklands to the Americans — what can go wrong?

2019–01–26


‘Rising Sun’

Rising Sun (1993) — a tech whodunnit with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes entering a world where sex-crazed Japanese executives are taking-over corporate America, where the lifts speak Japanese, and ‘the whole country is being outsourced to Japan’.

‘We’re giving away this country,’ one Cop announces. Later, when he spots a Japanese man with an American sex worker the same Detective says, ‘They’re plundering our natural resources.’ Of course all this ‘Japanese bashing’ will get turned around by some slick detective work that makes Sherlock Holmes look like an amateur.

John Connor (Connery) is the Japan expert who has been ousted from the Police, only to be brought back in to teach a younger Detective every Western cliché he can about the Japanese. This master / novice relationship echoes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and stories like The Name of the Rose, and Seven. It’s a recognisable crime trope.

Some of the tonal transitions are harsh, and the plot is both convoluted and obvious. Don’t ask too many questions or none of this will make any sense.

It has its moments though. One example is when a white executive assumes black Cop, Web Smith, must be the valet, and orders him to, ‘Get the senator’s car!’ Web replies, ‘No, you get the senator’s car! Wrong guy, wrong fucking century!’

2019–01–10


10 books that influenced my writing

The books I’ve most enjoyed reading also happen to be the books that motivate and inspire me to write. These are the books that leave me feeling like I’ve experienced a great story: the main character has gone on a journey, there’s a certain playfulness in the writing, it’s believable (or comically absurd), the prose is alive, the plot makes sense (perhaps with unexpected turns), and the sentences flow smoothly. When I sit down to write, it’s these qualities that I hope to bring to my own work.

Looking back at these ten books it’s made me realise how they reaffirm, rather than challenge, my world view. There’s a notion that fiction should potentially challenge our outlook, redefine us even. I’m not sure that this is the case, or at least it isn’t for me.

For example, all my ten books are written by men and feature male protagonists. I enjoy stories that show the individual beating ‘the system’, that display a sense of justice: good triumphs over bad, good characters are rewarded, and bad characters are punished. What constitutes goodness is debatable (especially these days) but generally I’d characterise it as the common good.

My feeling is that stories express and reaffirm what we already know. Fiction echoes our values and beliefs – it gives shape to our world view. This is why publishers look for manuscripts to reflect the zeitgeist, because it’s what people want to explore. And contemporary trends are always changing, always new.

Why not write your own list?

Be honest, don’t choose a vanity list of ‘worthy’ titles, unless they truly reflect the books that you’ve most enjoyed.

Do your choices actually challenge your world view or confirm what you already believe?

What do these titles say about you as a writer?

‘Sharky’s Machine’

I read Sharky’s Machine (1978, crime thriller) by William Diehl when I was a young adult. It was a second hand copy that had been discarded by the previous reader. It opened me up to a new world of danger and descriptions of adult behaviour. The writing is punchy and easy to read. In this quote, a mobster hitman is gradually unravelling as he becomes increasingly dependent on amphetamines to keep him functioning.

…he went to the bathroom and took the pill from his pocket, popped it in his mouth, and washed it down with a full glass of water. He was hardly out of the room when it hit him, a dazzling shot, like a bolt of lightning, that charged through his body, frazzling his skin. He felt as though he was growing inside his own shell, that his muscles and bones were stretching out. He became keenly aware of sounds, the hum of the elevator and the muffled roar of a vacuum cleaner behind a door somewhere. His entire body shuddered involuntarily as he waited for the elevator.

‘The Ipcress File’

I was still at school when I read The Ipcress File (1962, spy thriller) by Len Deighton. I enjoyed the protagonist’s cheeky disdain for authority (which most pupils will identify with) and the brilliant social observation.

Ross was a regular officer; that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.

Here’s a paragraph that has a certain hard-boiled charisma to it, followed by the character’s shopping habits. He’s not ‘posh’, but he’s cultured. He doesn’t buy any old English butter – he buys an expensive French one.

I walked down Charlotte Street towards Soho. It was that sort of January morning that had enough sunshine to point up the dirt without raising the temperature … I bought two packets of Gauloises, sank a quick grappa with Mario and Franco at the Terrazza, bought a Statesman, some Normandy butter and garlic sausage.

And here’s a comic exchange between the protagonist and a manager. I especially like the way tying a shoe lace feels like it could be a hangman’s noose.

‘…I am loyal, diligent and will attempt every day to be worthy of the trust my paternal employer puts in me. ‘I’ll make the jokes,’ said Dalby. ‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘I can use a laugh – my eyes have been operating at twenty-four frames a second for the last month.’ Dalby tightened his shoelace. ‘Think you can handle a tricky little special assignment?’ ‘If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.’ Dalby said, ‘Surprise me, do it without complaint or sarcasm.’ ‘It wouldn’t be the same,’ I said.

‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’

During my A-levels I read, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981, short stories) by Raymond Carver. It was probably the first book I read that made me conscious of reading fiction as ‘writing’. Like a million other people, the minimalist prose fooled me into thinking that, one day, perhaps I too could write something a little like this. While the stories have intrigued me, I never felt like they completely worked for me. This is the opening of Gazebo (which, weirdly enough, could almost be the beginning of a Bukowski story):

That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.

Years later I discovered that the original drafts had been extensively modified in the editing process, and while it made the stories pithy, akin to prose poetry, it also lobotomised them somehow.

‘Steppenwolf’

In my first term at university I read Steppenwolf (1927, literary fiction) by Herman Hesse, relishing the protagonist’s struggle with himself. Once again the scenario is faintly reminiscent of the Film Noir run-around. The symbolism and meaningful life-philosophy questions posed by the novel chimed with me.

‘Women’

The other major book I read in my first year at university was Women (1978, literary fiction) by Charles Bukowski. The opening is extremely direct. It hooks you in with its honesty. The language is simple and unpretentious.

I was 50 years old and hadn’t been to bed with a woman for four years. I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the streets or wherever I saw them, but I looked at them without yearning and with a sense of futility.

I was eighteen when I read the story of Henry Chinaski’s ‘barfly’ lifestyle. My life couldn’t have been more different. His world was as much of a journey into a strange world as any fantasy novel with blue people, trolls and talking unicorns. It’s a grimly picaresque adventure that symbolised my teenage anger and rebelliousness. I wasn’t looking for bar fights, alcohol abuse, or dysfunctional relationships, but (like many a teenager) I identified with a protagonist who felt misunderstood.

It’s not a book I would want to re-read. I do still admire the simplicity of the prose. A teenager might view Henry Chinaski’s disdain for mainstream society, his apparent freedom from caring about anything or anyone as liberating, but now it strikes me as something of a lie (like the legendary ‘rock and roll lifestyle’). He’s a troubled character, imprisoned within his problems, suffering from alcoholism, an adult acting like a child, mistreating others, and believing that he’s better than everyone else.

‘The Beach’

I read Alex Garland’s, The Beach (1996, literary fiction) one summer, after it had come out in paperback. Everything was right when I read it. It was during a hot summer. The sun was out, and I was lying on a cool green lawn, drinking cold beer. Like Women it was one of those novels that was very easy to read. The narrative was playful, with in-jokes about popular culture. The novel referenced computer games and reading it felt like being in a kind of game, but it also had a Graham Green-like literary sensibility to it, a detached coolness – the protagonist as a camera. You never really got to know the narrator.

‘Norwegian Wood’

I was working in a bookshop when I picked up a copy of Norwegian Wood (1987, literary fiction) by Hariku Murakami. I picked it up a number of times half-interested but never convinced. The combination of the opening, the twist at the end of the first chapter and the ending finally made me read it. (I always read the first and last paragraphs of a book before buying/reading it. If the end doesn’t work for me why go through the frustration of reading an entire novel, only to be disappointed?)

Norwegian Wood is another story where the hero goes through the Film Noir run-around. The first chapter describes a strange but powerful attraction the protagonist has to a female character, and we discover at the end of the chapter that his feelings were not reciprocated. How can you not want to read on?

The thought fills me with almost unbearable sorrow. Because Naoko never loved me.

‘Anthropology’

I’ve written a lot of very short fiction, and as usually happens when writing a manuscript, you invariably find yourself investigating published work that shares similarities to your own. This hopefully ensures that you’re not rewriting their book. Anthropology (2000, very short stories, flash fiction) by Dan Rhodes seemed to me to tick all the very short fiction or flash fiction boxes. The stories are variations on comically surreal jokes about relationship woes, written in a quirky tone and incorporating off-beat endings.

‘Silk’

After writing hundreds of very short stories, I became interested in formatting short stories as if they were micro-novels. Fortunately, or unfortunately, for me, another writer (as usual) had already achieved this. This was Alessandro Baricco’s *Silk * (1996, novella). It could be described as a Japanese novella written by a European writer. Here’s the whole of chapter 49:

49 Only silence, along the road. The body of a boy, on the ground. A man kneeling. Until the last light of day.

‘Killing Floor’

I read Lee Child’s Killing Floor (1997, crime thriller) while on an MA in Creative Writing. It was a sort of investigation into commercial fiction, and somewhat unexpectedly, I really enjoyed it. It’s brought me back full circle as it were to Sharky’s Machine and the desire to write fiction that has wider appeal. It’s a hope and a goal, at least.

Again, there’s a game going on in this novel between the writer and reader. The reader thinks he or she is smart reading between the lines, but all the clues have been put there by the author. There’s a lot to be said for an easy read, especially today when time is precious and there are films and the internet and a million other things to do. It’s good to know that the writer has done all the hard work for us and all the reader has to do is enjoy reading it. Killing Floor is one of those books that might not get you thinking about the meaning of life (or maybe it will) but it’s an entertaining and addictive read. This is the opening paragraph:

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

Jack Reacher is completely different to Henry Chinaski (they would almost certainly dislike one another) but Jack Reacher is also a kind of Romantic loner hero, an outsider who is immersed in Americana and yet anti-materialistic, driven by his own values, living without attachments.


Here’s a summary of my book choices:

(Book / point of view / tense / literary fiction or genre.)

From this information, a composite of the elements would produce a story with a male protagonist, that’s written in the first person and the past tense. The story would feature a character based personal journey, and it would include reference to past relationships, and have a crime thriller element. It would be written in an accessible style, a fusion of genre and literary fiction.

2019–02–19


The second person point of view

Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a postmodern, self-aware, meta fiction masterpiece. It’s a philosophical game about relationships: between the narrator and the reader, between life and death, between the literary device and the artifice of storytelling technique.

The language is particularly brilliant (it appears to have come through really well in the English translation) — but it needs to be in order to charm the reader and maintain our attention in what is an otherwise challenging and difficult story. The second person viewpoint significantly contributes to the intimate ‘fireside chat’ tone.

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.

Using fiction as a kind of intellectual puzzle is always a delicate balance between playfulness and indulgence. But here, the clever choice of the second person viewpoint helps to involve the reader in Calvino’s artful game.

Bright Lights, Big City is another great example of how to use the second person viewpoint with its comical tone from a world-weary protagonist.

John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise it Seems (1982) also opens by directly addressing the reader in an intimate, self-aware way using the second person viewpoint (although it morphs into a third person perspective):

This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night.

The second person viewpoint is often used to provide an intermediary voice between the character and the reader/audience, giving the author a space to comment. Rod Serling used this technique to introduce the old Twilight Zone episodes by speaking directly into the camera and taking to ‘you’, the viewers at home. These introductions were designed to connect the viewer directly to the story.

The second person viewpoint (you) is not that popular in fiction, but it does have advantages. It feels almost as intimate as the first person (I) and yet at the same time it is coming from outside of the character (from the author/narrator/or even a character’s subconscious) so it feels more distanced. In that respect it shares some qualities with the third person viewpoint (he/she).

It’s also a good way to write about unpleasant or privileged characters because it provides a way for the reader to empathise with them. The Neo Noir film Blast of Silence (1961) used it very effectively in the voice-over narration to describe the thoughts of a ruthless hit man.

While the second person viewpoint might put off some readers (as does the present tense) you very quickly adjust to it as a reader and it becomes just another literary tag.

2019–02–13


‘The Big Country’

The landscape is integral to the story of the Old American West, and it’s everywhere in ‘The Big Country’ (1958), framing the characters within its grandiosity.

The film features the usual Western story tropes: feuding family clans, land ownership, battles over water rights, male rivalries, macho confrontations, psychological intimidation, violent conflicts, and feisty women, but no Native American Indians.

Tonally, the film falls somewhere between the American post WW2 identity story and the 1960s Counter Culture. These post WW2 stories are all about men coming home, and adapting to new environments. They’re about finding a new kind of American hero, someone who can lead the nation to a better way of life. In a world filled with injustice, the audience wants to see a humble figure who is willing to fight for what’s right.

The Big Country doesn’t have the depth of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), that film’s social conscience, it’s radical undermining of the Cowboy myth, or its brooding Film Noir atmosphere, but The Big Country is a significant shift away from the helpless homesteader being attacked by monstrous Native American Indians — with the US Cavalry riding in to save the day.

The hero, Captain James McKay, a ship’s captain, is a man out of place in the arid Cowboy landscape. He is polite, behaves meekly, wears the business suit of a city gentleman, and rejects hatred. Any outward signs of ‘weakness’ hides a capable, brave, self-assured hero, who has what it takes.

2019–02–15


‘Stalker’

I saw Stalker late one night, when I was a teenager, and I wasn’t savvy with Soviet Cinema at the time. I wondered what the hell I was watching. The film defies many Western conventions of cinematic storytelling. Nothing much happens and its all, well… just plain weird. It’s an enigma wrapped up in an enigma.

Stalker is open to interpretation. The Zone is a kind of paranormal area, or in storytelling terms a metaphysical space of new possibility. Entering it seems to take the visitors into a kind of 4th dimension, like a Cubist painting, the space in-between space.

Stalker really is an art film. It’s not about aliens or strange places but about people and life, and the self. The landscape and industrial ruins are reimagined in a very Duchampian manner. Cinematically this whole world is akin to a ready-made: the ordinary becoming extraordinary. A working-class character (the Stalker) takes two bourgeois characters (Writer and Professor) into the Zone, a mystical place where people go in search of The Room. And the two middle-class characters return exhausted and dirty. In a way, more working-class, more like the Stalker.

The mysterious Room is a place where people’s wishes are granted, or — more likely — where they gain an insight into themselves. Maybe The Zone has special powers, a magic of sorts, or perhaps the journey to the room is a learning experience that provides that self-knowledge?

The nothingness of The Zone provokes anxiety that leads to self-reflection — it’s a kind of mind-expanding experience. And that’s where the journey really takes place, in the mind. It’s like that other room, the cinema in-which the audience is watching this film.

2019–02–23


‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’

Geoff Dyer’s ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: On Where Eagles Dare’ is a very funny book. The book works best if you watched the film in your youth, and you still find yourself venerating it, like it’s some kind of meaningful childhood artefact, your personal Rosebud. The book is a kind of DVD commentary narrated by the love child of Roland Barthes and John Berger:

… as they approach the drop zone he looks at the blinking red light, pulsating like a headache, like a warning of imminent liver failure

And:

Colonel Turner gives the briefing as though it’s scripted not by Alistair MacLean but by William Shakespeare.

2019–02–06


Unreliable women

Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, written in the first person and the past tense, as if it’s a journal, introduces the reader to Barbara (a manipulative and controlling loner) who befriends Sheba (a young art teacher who initiates a destructive sexual relationship with a pupil). The story is told through Barbara’s ‘manuscript’, and it brilliantly reveals her middle-class prejudices, her pretty-minded reactions, and her troubling emotional need to control anyone she decides to befriend.

While there’s much to dislike about Barbara she’s inadvertently funny, and the reader can empathise with her loneliness and fear of humiliation. She also makes a great social observer. Part of the game the reader plays is separating her cutting honesty from her self-justifying delusions.

In The Girl on the Train another unreliable female protagonist, this time written in the first person and the present tense, as if the reader is ‘in her head’ listening to her thoughts, comes to terms with her alcoholism and an abusive relationship. Like Barbara, Rachel Watson’s ‘outsider’ status makes her an excellent vehicle for a running social commentary about deceit, hypocrisy, and superficiality in the people around her. This has to be balanced with her delusions as an unreliable narrator.

Barbara clearly has issues and can be seen as emotionally dysfunctional, and Rachel Watson is an alcoholic. Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, on the other hand, is on another level. She’s a sociopath with criminal tendencies. She murders her lover, lies to her husband, and later coerces him into compliant behaviour.

The portrayal of Barbara in the film adaptation of Notes on a Scandal differs from the novel. In the novel she’s weak and emotionally needy, a messed-up attention seeker, but in the film she is a calculating predator with a latent sexual interest in her victims. Subtle differences between the novel and the adaptation change her from a realistic but troubled character into a malicious predator. While the stakes are raised the story loses the subtle nuances of the original character.

Rachel Watson is out of control, attempting to rebuild her life. Barbara has reached a plateau of (dis)comfort with hers. She realises that she hasn’t amounted to anything. Her sense of loss is compensated by her smugly self-justifying judgements. Her emptiness is counteracted by her emotional need to latch-on to a person that she befriends and dominates.

Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (her name suggests that she’s ‘done’ something) controls her husband through fear and intimidation, and she even manipulates the media with her lies. The reader experiences her story through sections narrated by her husband, sections from her journal, and her own narration. Like Girl on a Train, Gone Girl is essentially a book of two halves an ‘unreliable’ setup followed by a reveal that leads to either a rebalancing, or a further unbalancing.

All three stories are to some extent mysteries: what’s the ‘scandal’, what destroyed Rachel Watson, and what is the truth behind the disappearance of Amy Dunne. Three unreliable female narrators provide vehicles for the authors to explore the values and behaviour of the characters around the protagonist, and wider society.

2019–02–11


‘Wonder Boys’

Every writer wants a killer first line, and Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel, Wonder Boys, has one: ‘The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn.’ It’s unassuming, not exactly pithy, but it feels natural: introducing us to a mystery that symbolises the essence of the novel — who was August Van Zorn, and why was he so important for Grady Tripp, the narrator?

Van Zorn, a legendary figure, who wrote long forgotten gothic horror stories, is remembered from Tripp’s childhood, as the representation of a ‘real’ writer. Van Zorn has the ‘midnight disease’ as Tripp calls it, the compulsion to write. He wasn’t there to schmooze the literary agents at fancy dinner parties — all he wanted was to write. Wonder Boys is essentially the story of Tripp nurturing a young writer in his writing class (James Leer), who also has the ‘midnight disease’. And, in the process of helping James, he reconnects with himself, with his own inner-Van Zorn. Tripp’s bloated manuscript, a virtuoso piece, designed to be his great magnum opus, reeks of self-indulgence, and is deadened by its own technical brilliance. It’s a monument to his faded brilliance — and a complete dead end. To move on, he must re-learn how to be a humble storyteller.

The plot is a pretty straightforward, nice guy gets screwed around Film Noir-style, which works well with Tripp’s sardonic narration. Tripp’s character is the story, and as a character he is worthy of that pivotal role. For the most part it’s a pleasure to see the world through his eyes, but when he drives out to visit his ex-wife (who’s living at her parents house) the narrative stumbles into what feels like another story (a short story inserted into the novel). Here, Chabon’s observations about middle-class Jewish domesticity — clearly something that he cherishes as a writer — gets in the way of this story.

Another oddity is the way James Leer (Tripp’s ‘wonder boy’) is presented as a liar. His lies about his background, telling Tripp that he’s Catholic, and from an impoverished background (when he’s from a wealthy WASP family) — this completely undermines his credibility. Why did Chabon include this? Are his lies symbolic of writers in general; how writers invent fictions about themselves before they go on to create fictions about their characters? Are the lies a way of ensuring that we only empathise with Tripp?

Tripp’s magnanimous visit to his ex-wife (where he displays no malice), and his generous accommodation of Leer’s bullshit makes him look like a bigger person. If Tripp is viewed as a bit of a selfish loser, this kind of plotted character bolstering could make him more likeable, but I enjoyed him as he was, and I didn’t think it was necessary. Both these issues are rectified in the film adaption, which, as a story, improves on the novel. Tripp is funny and honest enough that we can excuse his faults — the fact that he’s a rogue and a misfit makes him human. Tripp’s narration is glorious — full of writerly observations about life — as honest as he is comically jaded. And for all the novel’s faults, his character packs in the charm.

2019–01–13


‘Jetlag’

Jetlag (1998), a collection of 5 short graphical stories, by Etgar Keret and Actus Comics, includes some of Keret’s best short stories, brought to life with beautiful colour drawings. The collection takes its name from the story Jetlag: a surreal episode of grotesque debauchery takes place on a transatlantic ‘flight to nowhere’. Nothing really matters because everyone is preoccupied with their orgiastic behaviour, oblivious to the catastrophe that will shortly happen. The flight is chaotic, no one appears to be in charge — the pilots are asleep at the wheel. The narrator, aided by a stewardess, who is madly in love with him, escapes by parachuting from the aircraft (the decompression of his exit probably responsible for bringing down the plane). Later, alone in his hotel room, the narrator laments his loneliness, imagining himself with the other ‘survivors’: being rescued in a dingy and resolutely ‘refusing to wave at the cameras’.

In HaTrick, instead of a cute rabbit, a children’s magician produces terrible things out of his magic hat. In Margolis a child’s piggy bank comes to life. A gateway to hell opens up in Passage to Hell, and in The Rumanian Circus a failed romance leads a man run away with a circus monkey.

Fiction sometimes occupies a space where — liberated from reality — it can explore themes and ideas the audience might not otherwise get excited about. Absurd, black, or satirical humour can explore: egocentric excess, social hypocrisy and the oddities of human culture.

Keret’s original short stories, which these micro-graphic novels are based on, subvert expectations of the real world with comic surrealism, and beg the question: How can anything but crazy stories (that don’t make sense) explain a crazy world (that doesn’t make sense)? The stories use the humour of the unexpected — apparently normal situations can at any moment erupt into bizarre, surreal situations. Keret’s world is crazy and unpredictable. And although the stories are warnings about the world, they also celebrate the human spirit, even if much of it produces stupidity and folly. His humour counteracts the darkness. As dumb and misguided as mankind is — at least we have something to laugh at.

2016–07–23


Raymond Carver: what we talk about when we talk about editing

I read Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love when I was at school, many years ago, and it made a strong impression on me. His writing had that special ‘something’, observations of people going about their lives, heavy with implication. These written snapshots always felt like literary street photography. Carver’s vignettes of ordinary people, struggling against the odds, are perfectly chosen moments that express a point, something akin to Henri Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’. They encapsulate a critical moment for the characters — a captured ‘memory’. They leave behind not just a ‘story’, as it were, but an artefact of that ‘memory’.

Although his short stories are works of fiction, they have a prose poetry quality, and feel like slice of real-life documentary. Carver’s ‘decisive moments’ encapsulate the characters’ hidden emotions, fears, and prejudices — life’s small injustices. Joy is marred by impending melancholy; the characters themselves overshadowed by circumstances beyond their control. Stuff happens. And we, the reader, observe. We make sense. Chandler leaves the judgement to us. His stories are riddled with characters facing prejudice, and the weight of social expectation. Their sadness lies in our painful awareness of the bigger picture — life will swallow them up and spit them out. But, importantly, it never feels sentimental. He describes a working-class world of struggle and hardship, written at a time when America was at its peak. But — evidently — the ‘American dream’ hadn’t reached these people.

It was only fairly recently that I bought Beginners, the publication of Carver’s original and unedited version of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. I was intrigued. What did his manuscripts look like before Gordon Lish, his editor, got hold of them? Part of me was expecting to have my assumptions confirmed: editors clean up manuscripts, they alter the tone, polishing over the rawness, making a writer’s work more accessible, coherent — mainstream.

The edited version of Carver’s work does reveal the talent of Gordon Lish. While Carvers stories are intimate and delightful, I wonder if they would have made as much of an impact and resonated as ‘instant classics’ had they been published without Lish? It’s surprising that some of the most Carver-esque traits of Carver’s work originate from Lish, including the weirdly meaningless — but catchy — title, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. Lish not only cut and re-wrote phrases — as one might expect — but he even went as far as writing complete, original, sentences of his own. If that had happened to a commercial crime author no one would blink, but for that to happen to a master of short fiction, that’s something else.

Or is it?

Carver was a writer, and a teacher. He was used to the idea of giving and receiving criticism, learning, and improving his work. He knew that, contrary to belief, it didn’t just happen. It had to be worked at. Earned. He certainly worked at it. And he certainly earned it. He was used to this process of as part of a writer’s creative development: surrendering to the wider creative progress, which includes: editors, and creative writing classes. Part of his greatness, in a weirdly Duchampain way, was that he understood that the writer had to open himself or herself to external factors, like his or her editor playing a crucial role.

The things I never understood about Carver’s work make sense now. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, an overly ornate title for a humble craftsman like Carver, comes from Lish. Carver’s own title Beginners makes so much more sense, in every way. But is it impactful?

Carver gives his characters a lot more space to be themselves, but much of this is exercised by Lish. The flowing sentences of one paragraph can lead on another with the staccato abruptness (Lish’s editing). Was Lish overzealous? That’s debatable, but he certainly made Carver’s work memorable.

Lish turned Carver’s raw talent — Carver’s manuscript Beginners — into a defined, packaged product: a published book. His editing helped to sell it as the work of a fresh, new, ‘minimalist writer’, using a paradoxically Baroque, and enigmatic, title of his own invention: What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.

2017–02–18


On Murakami’s novel ‘Norwegian Wood’

‘I was 37 then’… well, not exactly, but I was in my thirties when I discovered Norwegian Wood (1987), the novel by Haruki Murakami. The story’s false start resonated with me: a mysterious narrator landing at a German airport, The Beatles song ‘Norwegian Wood’ playing in the background, whisking him back to bitter-sweet memories of university.

Murakami’s Norwegian Wood features a 20-year-old protagonist, Toru Watanabe. Toru comes across as a likeable, ‘average guy’. He’s detached and cynical, sees things from a different point of view to most people. He’s attracted by certainty, and is himself seeking something tangible. The problem is that he lacks any conviction in his life. As a drama student, for example, he lacks any real passion for the subject. He is attracted to two girls, but unable to choose between them. One of the women is present in his real life, while the other is a dysfunctional ghostly spectre from his past, and hankering after her symbolically represents his immature desires — fantasies that can never become real.

Toru’s inability to ‘choose’ between them forms the backbone of the story, culminating in his final life decision regarding his future. It’s really a story about breaking with the past, with depression and consciously choosing a workable future. Toru can only get to this place (where he is able to make that choice) by truly understanding himself, and knowing what he wants from life. The novel is the journey of how he gets there, seen through a series of life experiences that gradually move him towards self-awareness. This is a coming of age story of sorts, even if Toru isn’t himself a teenager.

The novel encapsulates many ideas for me, not just directly relating to the text — the style, the narrator’s voice, the symbolic resonance, the atmosphere, the plot structure, etc — but factors outside of the text. It’s poignant to me how I’ve revisited the story over time as a reader, and looking back on the book feels a bit like Toru looking back on his past. It’s interesting how our perceptions of the story change over time. The words may remain the same, but our framing of the story — our expectations — shift. 15 years or so later I have a strangely ambivalent feeling about the novel. I can see the beauty — if you can call it that — of the protagonist’s journey, but I’m not so sure if I read it now, afresh (impossible as that is), that I’d be so enamoured by it. It feels like a story that could only resonate with the person I was a few years ago.

The other striking thing about Norwegian Wood is that it’s a novel written by a Japanese author in Japanese. It’s impossible for an English reader to understand the original text. What we experience is already an interpretation. The translation is everything. I read the Jay Rubin translation first, and for me this is the real Norwegian Wood. Alfred Birmbaum’s translation feels like a different novel. It’s all in the voice. Jay Rubin captures Toru’s voice, while Birmbaum’s version feels wooden and technical.

This is the first line of the novel translated by Rubin:

I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth, lending everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in waterproofs, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So – Germany again.

The words flow smoothly. There’s a musicality to the sentence construction.

Compare this to Birmbaum’s translation:

Here I am, thirty-seven years old, seated in a Boeing 747. The giant plane is diving into a thick cover of clouds, about to land at Hamburg Airport. A chill November rain darkens the land, turning the scene into a gloomy Flemish painting. The airport workers in their rain gear the flags atop the faceless airport buildings, the BMW billboards, everything. Just great, I’m thinking, Germany again.

They describe the same thing, more or less, and I can see merit in both versions. Birmbaum’s translation is perhaps fuller, and should be the better of the two, but it’s not. Rubin’s translation resonates with immediacy and an ‘authentic’ voice. His words create the impression of energy and life. The suggestion of vitality and resonance comes from the choice of words that suggest physicality, and the sentence construction has a certain musicality. The lesson for writers is that the small details contribute to the overall impression.

The Rubin version begins in the past tense, essentially: I was on a plane and remembered. The Birmbaum starts in the present tense: I am on a plane and remember. This almost inconsequential difference is fundamental to the whole story. The past tense accentuates a sense of loss, of time having passed, of gained wisdom through experience, while Toru still appears emotionally vulnerable. In short, I think there’s more to empathise with, because Rubin shows us Toru on the plane, while Birnbaum tells us about him. ‘Showing’ is more effective because it creates mystery, and asks the reader to creatively fill in the gaps. It’s a game of sorts, but an important one that elevates a good story into a great one.

In the first version Toru is ‘strapped in my seat’, which sounds like he’s imprisoned, and in the second he’s simply ‘seated’. In the Rubin translation ‘the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover’ and in the Birmbaum translation ‘The giant plane is diving into a thick cover of clouds’. It’s ‘plunged’ versus ‘diving’ and ‘dense cloud’ versus ‘thick cover of clouds’ — it’s more evenly matched here, but I’d say that Rubin edges it in terms of making the description come alive and seem more active. The ‘ground crew in waterproofs’ feels more evocative than ‘airport workers in their rain gear’, which is slightly more generic, and ‘a squat airport building’ has a tad more character than ‘faceless airport buildings’ (which, as a general observation, imparts less impact).

Jay Rubin’s version continues:

Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever.

Alfred Birnbaum’s translation continues:

The plane completes its landing procedures, the NO SMOKING sign goes off, and soft background music issues from the ceiling speakers. Some orchestra’s muzak rendition of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” And sure though, the melody gets to me, same as always. No, this time it’s worse than ever before. I get it real bad. I swear my head is going to burst.

Rubin’s version achieves a satisfying balance between painting a realistic picture (through observed details), and making the important plot point about the music. The reader is waltzed from sentence to sentence with ‘soft music’ flowing from speakers, and ‘sweet orchestra’. The excessive detail in Birmbaum’s second paragraph overwhelms the plot point, plus Toru’s reaction seems overplayed in comparison. Rubin offers the physicality of ‘shudder’ and downplays the emotional landscape with ‘hit me harder than ever’ (an understatement) versus Birmbaum’s overblown, ‘No, this time it’s worse than ever before. I get it real bad. I swear my head is going to burst.’ This tells us what Toru feels instead of letting us work it out for ourselves. The tone feels a little overblown, sounding like an irritable 15-year-old, more along the lines of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, rather than a 37-year-old. There’s no right or wrong here, but, for me at least, Rubin’s tone and voice seems both more appealing and authentic.

There’s a critical lesson here for writers — the difference between delightful storytelling and something prosaic is slimmer than we might imagine. While precise language is crucial to good storytelling, overly technical descriptions of environments and internal worlds can bog down the flow and remove the reader’s fun of ‘filling-in’ the gaps.

2017–05–01


The Interview: ‘The Paris Review’

The Paris Review, since its inception in 1953, has run interviews with authors in a series it calls ‘The Art of Fiction’. These delightful pieces, especially the ones from the mid-1950s, the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, tell of a time before the internet, an era of gentlemanly sophistication, a boy’s club with chunky ink pens, Imperial paper sizes, chain-smoking, all-day drinking and the writer’s best friend, the mechanical typewriter.

The pattern for these ‘classic’ interviews began with a preface, an introductory text set in italics. This described the circumstances of the interview, the author’s home, the date(s) in which the interviewing took place, and intriguing details such as the interior of the writer’s home, office, his or her demeanour, the interviewer’s first impression of the author, and even a description of the clothing they were wearing.

Today, much of this tradition has been jettisoned, perhaps replaced by editorial photography, but the later introductions are seldom as charming; usually dreary recaps of the writer’s career, and no matter how eye-catching the photo, it never has the same delightful resonance.

Graham Greene, interviewed in the spring of 1953, emphasised finding meaning in his novels not in his interview answers; he stressed the importance of ‘childhood and adolescence’ in forming ‘the writer’, whose career then becomes one of making that private world public.

Some of the replies to the interviewer’s questions are disarmingly honest. Truman Capote, for instance, is asked: ‘Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?’ To which he replies: ‘Work is the only device I know of.’ And there are frequent questions about writing longhand versus using a typewriter. ‘What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?’ the interviewer asks Capote.

‘I am a completely horizontal author…’ he replies. ‘I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in long-hand (pencil).’

Capote continues, ‘…I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. He writes in bed with the typewriter balanced on his knees, claiming to write ‘a hundred words a minute’. Then, after putting his writing away for some weeks, or a month, he returns to it by typing out the final draft on white paper.

Capote comes from the school of writers who are superstitious about the writing process, which he admits ‘could be termed a quirk’. He believes in lucky and unlucky numbers (which I assume means even and odd), and he ‘will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses’ even though they are his favourite flower, nor will he travel on a plane with two nuns or allow three or more cigarette butts in a cigarette tray. And he ‘won’t begin or end anything on a Friday’.

The interview with Saul Bellow in 1965 took place over the summer and again later in the year – two hours a day ‘at least twice and often three times a week throughout the entire five-week period.’ He was ‘at great pains to make his ideas transparent to the interviewer, asking repeatedly if this was clear or if he should say more on the subject.’ The typescripts from the recording sessions were carefully edited ‘in pen and ink’ by Bellow. The interview locations were given as: Bellow’s apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, on a ‘Jackson Park bench’, and ‘with beer and hamburgers at a local bar’.

Jack Kerouac was forty-five when he was interviewed. His thirtieth novel had been published earlier that year. He was living with his wife and mother. The interviewer notes that the house had no telephone. Kerouac writes ‘an average of 8,000 words a sitting, in the middle of the night’, adding that, ‘I really hate to write’ – because he is forced to creep about the house while the others are sleeping.

‘What are work-destroyers?’ To which he replies the distraction of literary wannabes seeking advice and short-cuts — or, as he puts it, ‘certain people’.

The interviewers often ask about the writer’s ideal reader. ‘Do you imagine an ideal reader for your books? To which, Anthony Burges replies, ‘The ideal reader of my novels is a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, colour-blind, auditory biased, who has read the books that I have read. He should also be about my own age.’

The spring 1969 interview with John Cheever comes across much like a meeting at one of the affluent households in the first part of his short story The Swimmer, his own stone house was built in 1799 – ‘a tour of the house and grounds was obligatory’. ‘For the interview Cheever was wearing a faded blue shirt and khakis.’ The conversation immediately gets down to the important things: Cheever’s dislike of curtains and ‘television reception’. Oh, the perils of living in the countryside.

Cheever changes the subject when the conversation gets around to his work. ‘Aren’t you bored with all this talk? Would you like a drink? Perhaps lunch is ready I’ll just go downstairs and check. A walk in the woods, and maybe a swim afterwards?’ Cheever has an office ‘in town’, which I’m guessing means Manhattan, not the local town. Cheever enjoys using a chainsaw to cut wood, watching television and playing backgammon.

Cheever’s replies are strikingly honest and insightful. ‘Do you feel drawn to experiment in fiction…?’ To which he replies, ‘Fiction is experimentation.’ And then he adds, ‘Every sentence is an innovation.’ How true. And when he is asked if he belongs to any literary tradition he says, ‘No.’, but then he elaborates, clarifying that American novelists are not part of a tradition. (Although they are now.)

Kurt Vonnegut’s interview was an amalgam of interviews that had taken place over the previous decade. In the seminal interview from 1976 – which has served to update the previous sessions: ‘He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge grey flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets.’ His writing desk is empty apart from a typewriter and the latest copy of Interview. Vonnegut is chain-smoking Pall Mall cigarettes; during the interview he smokes almost a complete pack.

Joan Didion comments on the male dominated writer’s culture. ‘…in the late ‘50s early ‘60s – there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts.’ And, she adds, ‘A woman who writes novels had no particular role.’

While one might imagine Cheever inhabiting an affluent neighbourhood, where the gardens come with swimming pools as standard, it’s something of a shock when the interviewer turns up to working-class hero, Raymond Carver’s home, and there in the drive way is a brand-new Mercedes Benz, parked outside the pleasant suburban dwelling. Carver writes at a desk with nothing on it except a typewriter. Very minimalist, very Zen; even though he is tired of the ‘minimalist’ label attributed to his writing.

Some of the interviewers’ preoccupations seem irrelevant or almost quaint now: the hand writing versus (the demonic) typewriter battle, the increasing (and apparently concerning) trend of authors writing journalism. The questions can sometimes feel like traps, attempting to coerce writers into revealing themselves, or committing themselves to a particular position, one perhaps of only passing academic interest. Ballard is asked if he is interested in ‘cultural decadence’ and when he replies – beautifully – about a fascination with ‘drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels’ he’s threatened with ‘inviting the worst sort of psychoanalytic interpretation’. This smacks of bullshit – Ballard is simply interested in maintaining a ‘mystery I never want to penetrate’. He’s never happier than when he ‘can write about drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels’ because it represents a paradox and a palpable loss – environments with a telling sense of something having gone wrong, no doubt.

Ballard talks about the preliminary work that goes into his novels. For High Rise he wrote a 25,000-word report from the viewpoint of a social worker. ‘I wish I’d kept it; I think it was better than the novel.’ What are his working habits like? ‘Every day five days a week. Longhand now it’s less tiring than a typewriter.’ He sets himself a target of 700 words a day. He writes the first and second draft in long hand and types out the final draft. He writes for two hours in the morning, a walk, followed by two hours in the afternoon, ‘Then at six a scotch and soda, and oblivion.’ When asked about giving advice to young writers, Ballard warns, ‘do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player.’

2017–07–14


‘The Seven Basic Plots’

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) makes sense of storytelling through the symbolic psychology of Carl Jung. Booker identifies seven story types, a range of archetypal characters, and the all-pervasive effect of ‘light’ or ‘dark’ internal worlds. At the core of this psychology of storytelling is the balance — or imbalance — between the male and female aspects of characters, and the mirroring of their internal journey to their progress in the world.

The Seven Basic Plots uses this Jungian framework to make sense of the hero’s journey, from the call to action, to the resolution. The plots are: (1) Overcoming the monster, (2) Rags to riches, (3) The quest, (4) Voyage and return, (5) Comedy, (6) Tragedy, and (7) Rebirth. Booker includes some alternative, ‘dark’ versions — endings where the hero fails to achieve his or her objective.

The point of storytelling, as Booker sees it, revolves around externalising our subconscious thoughts, and using this construct as a revelatory tool for understanding the ego. The ego is fundamental to his concept of the hero’s journey, because it sets their ‘fate’. Their effectiveness in the world mirrors their inner, psychological development. Once they are able to face the truth, and let go of their denial, or otherwise poisoned way of thinking, they can be liberated, and attain completeness. Likewise, those who are unable to overcome themselves — either because they are unwilling, or because they are unable to face the truth — are condemned to inner weakness, or darkness, which either results in them failing to reach their goal, or turns them into a ‘dark’ character. Why? Because, as Jung says: “The treasure which the hero fetches from the dark cavern is life: it is himself.” And an inability to fetch this priceless treasure places a character, at best, into inner torment (which leads to failure), and at worst to become the monster (the perpetuator of evil).

Looking at stories as celebrations and warnings; the celebration comes from the hope of ‘fetching’ the treasure out of the cave, so to speak, and the warning comes from the fear of not being able to retrieve it.

Booker also refers to elements being ‘above’ and ‘below’ the line, which refers to consciousness — the threshold between awareness and non-awareness. He also uses this distinction in relation to class: the poor people in the film, The Titanic are forgotten, both symbolically, and physically, ‘below the line’, located in basic accommodation in the lower decks, beneath the waterline.

The interplay of masculine and feminine elements plays a prominent role in his understanding of stories, and the archetypes inhabiting them. The hero must essentially get in touch with his masculinity, to achieve his goal. Male characters dominated by their feminine sides are inherently weak and liable to become a ‘dark’ figure. The dark figures are: the dark father, the dark mother, the dark rival, and the dark other half.

The ‘other half’ plays an important role, because Booker views characters as having a divided self; a ‘dark’ and a ‘light’ side, the brooding dark tends to be masculine, while the feminine side is portrayed as ‘light’. Often the protagonist and antagonist, although the opposite of one another in many ways, require some element of the ‘other’ in order to be whole. A heartless tyrant could do with some ‘light’ or femininity to make him ‘whole’, and a young hero might need more ‘masculinity’ to attain his goal.

Booker convincingly, in my view, explains that ‘modern’ genres, like the crime mystery, fall into one of his seven plots: a crime mystery, for example, is likely to be a tragedy, or a voyage and return. The quest plot explains a science fiction story like Star Wars.

Booker’s framework for understanding stories is elaborate and convincing, masterly even. It reflects incredible depth of knowledge, and a lifetime of reflection. But — his framework also feels old fashioned, theatrical, focused on classic mythology, filled with archetypes of the heroic male, potentially coming across as a series of traditional stereotypes: the masculine hero rescuing the beautiful princess. He does explain his framework with references to contemporary film, but it feels contrived: the examples have been carefully selected, because they fit in.

Booker is onto something, but at the same time one might hope for something less formulaic. Because, today, the most interesting heroes are complex, flawed, and incomplete — they are not ‘whole’ — they may even be ‘broken’. But, somehow, through courage, through conviction, by taking tough decisions, through perseverance, fearlessness, and ingenuity — they can succeed. And they can be victorious on their own terms, without conforming to imposed notions of what makes them a ‘whole human’.

2017–07–20


‘Annihilation’

In the novel Annihilation (2014), by Jeff VanderMeer, an area located in Florida, designated ‘Area X’, has been overtaken by unknown forces, creating a strange and mysterious ecosystem, which might possibly be an alien entity.

Here, weird things occur, normal expectations are confounded by evolutionary anomalies, psychological disturbances, and other unexplainable phenomena. When an expedition of four women is sent into ‘Area X’, each member possessing a specific skillset, they encounter forces none of them can comprehend.

The writing is prosaic yet compelling, rich descriptions of ‘Area X’ intercut with the internal meanderings and rationalisations of ‘The Biologist’, who is authoring the journal. The novel, her journal, has resonance with the other journals she finds spookily piled up in the lighthouse. These are part decayed, but nonetheless absorbingly addictive, even in their banality.

The story has obvious similarities to other science fiction stories like Stalker, Solaris, The Sphere, and the television series Lost. Stalker features a weird ‘Zone’ with paranormal powers, a place where time and space appear to mesh together in a different way, a place where people go to find life answers, to be healed, to find themselves, to have an experience, and so on. It’s also a place where the authorities previously sent in the military to control the situation, but this dramatically failed to solve anything. Now, in both Stalker and Annihilation, the strange area has been closed off and managed, with the occasional expedition sent inside. And, like Stalker, the environment in ‘Area X’ superficially appears unremarkable, although there are evolutionary anomalies and paranormal happenings. The landscape in Annihilation feels like a Duchampian readymade, an ordinary natural space reimagined through storytelling into a wonderful and fantastic world. The ordinary made new again by wrapping it in the enigmatic and otherworldly.

The investigative team enters ‘Area X’ without modern technology, reliant on their journals to record their thoughts and observations. These journals are reminiscent of the pneumatic capsule pipeline reports in the similarly weird island in Lost, observations of experiments, which end up pointlessly discarded in a pile cascading down a mountainside. Is this a comment about the act of observing: the pointlessness of over rationalised observation? Because all observation however pseudo-technical or scientific is subjective… stuck inside the limitations of words and language?

Like Lost’s Pacific Island in the middle of nowhere, ‘Area X’ is strange and bound by different rules, a place where space and time meet to provide possibilities unavailable in the normal world. A portal of some kind. This implies dimensional travel, time travel, a place where sub-atomic particles collide to produce new kinds of ‘stuff’… this process, is coincidentally, technically known as Annihilation, although ‘annihilation’ in this story relates to something else.

The journals seem to be the key to this story, a story about storytelling, about experiencing and observing, about self-absorption and introspection, about being made to fit in (by her husband) and refusing to fit it (being true to her nerdy loner essence), it’s also about being amalgamated into the ecosystem of ‘Area X’, becoming part of it, transformed, merging into its essence. This could be perceived to be horrific or zen-like, take your pick.

What is ‘Area X’? It’s a bizarre natural phenomenon (well, it has logically occurred within nature, so technically that’s what it is), but it could also be something of extra-terrestrial origin, an alien lifeform, a weird presence like the entity in The Sphere, (which also produces disturbing psychological effects on the similarly hand-picked team of specialists); or an organic version of The Cube, a puzzle, one that exists as an entire ecosystem, and like life itself it ultimately confounds rational investigation. This ‘sentient life’ uses human language, words to communicate. Although it’s unclear what it’s trying to say. Alternatively, these words could be the leftover vestiges of people from previous expeditions, something akin to the creatures ‘memory’ of them, or their minds incorporated into it. There are parallels here with Arrival, an alien life communicating with people, although in Annihilation it’s unclear is this is important, or an irrelevant-but-curious garbage-like by-product.

Annihilation skirts a fine line between a matter-of-fact excursion into a radioactive-like wilderness something akin to Chernobyl, a place after people, or a post-people environment – a horror story – and the narrator’s making sense of her previous life, one which seems unsatisfactory to her. Is ‘Area X’ a kind of afterlife possibly? Unlike other people who return as emotional husks from ‘Area X’, her life was lacking and empty when she was outside. She only becomes her true self once she has transformed into an ‘Area X’-ified-person.

The story refuses to use names, or (to clarify), The Biologist who writes the journal refuses to use personal names. I assume this is because, once subsumed into the ecosphere of ‘Area X’ human names become meaningless to her.

Annihilation’s mysterious ‘Area X’ provides a space where people find or lose themselves, where conventional meanings are annihilated. In this place full of psychological pressures, people crack. In a zen-like way, they either become part of this strange environment, like the living-island in Lost, or it tears them apart psychologically.

It’s a classic journey into the ‘heart of darkness’ using the trusty storytelling device of the written journal – recording the narrator’s desire to capture and make sense of her experience, in much the same way an author uses stories to make sense of the world.


2017–08–08

The rumination of ‘Herzog’, and ‘Ravelstein’

Whatever happened; has already happened. Now we’re looking back at the past, trying to make sense. This is what Saul Bellow’s novels, Herzog and Ravelstein set out to do. We can only make sense of the past if we understand the thoughts that people experienced. We have to go into the mind of a character, the ideas that motivated them. Saul Bellow was fascinated by these thoughts and ideas. How people live in worlds of ideas and conceptualisation. Mindscapes. Or, as he put it: ‘We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.’[1]

The characters, Herzog and Ravelstein, live within these interwoven layers: blame, excuses, goals, expectations, rationalisations, history… They are the servants of ideas. Ideas take hold of them. They are not in control.

Both stories are about the ideated ‘I’ – Herzog (his world view) and ‘Chick’ (writing his memoir about his friend Ravelstein). They are about thinking back – accessing memories. We’re revisiting places, and times from their lives. We too are trying to make sense. The past has happened. It’s a place Herzog and Ravelstein (and ‘Chick’) can never return to – this is the rumination story.

Ravelstein, the grand old queer in Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein is magnificent. A towering intellect, and a flawed man. A man of culture; a connoisseur. Ravelstein is always thinking (wrapped up in the grandeur of the classical world), always buying the best clothes – the consumer accessories necessary for a great man. He’s a Romantic figure travelling through the cultural wilderness of 20th Century America. Making sense of post-World War II USA. He’s a metaphor for America itself.

Bellow’s characters are working out their identity. Ravelstein seeks the philosophical truth, the right aesthetic, the splendour of luxury. He revels in his elitism, but part-identifies with the street, the place of his humble beginnings. Always going about his important work, dressed for the part. He’s a dandy of sorts, an accomplished wit, capable of cutting observations when required, a man whose academic knowledge stretches from Ancient Greece to the modern world – Athens, Rome, Paris, and Jerusalem. The world of the ancients is his domain of excellence, and it’s also another layer of the bullshit ideas that distract him from being him.

Herzog is mentally preoccupied, troubled, tormented. Preoccupied with his girlfriends. Dumping them or being dumped by them. A latent mesh of ideas always blocking Herzog from himself. His relationships are dysfunctional. Women are won and then lost. Life is a big gambling casino: you never know what happens next. Loss is the only certainty. The loss of money. Of looks. Of Youth. Of feeling good about yourself – of lightness.

Horzog’s women are also imprisoned within this same mesh of ideas. They’re motivated by false truths, bogus arguments – unclaimed baggage. The baggage Herzog feels compelled to pick up and deal with but can never resolve. His advice is unwanted or ignored. Instead, he makes do by recalling the details. Their facial expressions, the irony filed conversations – listening to their backstories. He attempts to fathom the apparently impossible, to understand women as if they’re a classical text that can be analysed rationally. He’s the Captain Spok of Academia. To him, women are abundantly mercurial. Perplexing. A mysterious riddle. Always alluring. He sees through their snobbery, hypocrisy and arrogance while locked within his own faults. A meaningful connection is not possible. The dissatisfaction this creates preoccupies him.

Ravelstein, on the other hand, is a man without the need for women. He’s a man’s man. A gay man. In his view, women distract great men from their great thoughts. His chosen ones, his student favourites, are like Greek statues in his own museum of favourites. The beautiful and the charming. They’re destined for great things – always beautiful, always charming. At times ‘Chick’ and Ravelstein are like The Odd Couple. The comic surface interplay hides their deep emotional relationship. Love even.

Feminists will have a lot of trouble with Ravelstein, and no doubt Herzog. Women don’t get equal billing in either of these novels. It’s their mindshare we are missing. All the thoughts come from Herzog or ‘Chick’. The world is processed by men, through the male mind. Herzog tells the reader about women, to great length, but struggles to understand them himself. Why should we care for his opinion when it’s based on his dysfunctional relationships?

The left will have trouble with Ravelstein; it’s a story about a rich man. Ravelstein is the American elite, part of an academic community of ‘experts’, spoilt by pampering and overblown paycheques. They lecture one another within their campus bubbles, exhibiting carefree snobbery – disconnected from the contemporary realities. There’s a whiff of ivory towers here. Relics. The polishing of statues.

Conservatives will have trouble with Ravelstein because he’s a gay man through and through. An unabashed liberal. A man who loves the arts, fashion eccentricities, and passes comment about the world’s injustice.

Liberals will have problems with Ravelstein. He’s a gay man whose politics is profoundly conservative. He’s a traditionalist, immersed in classical studies, enjoying his connections with Capitol Hill. He sees no need for gay pride festivals.

If Bellow’s language wasn’t quite so brilliant Herzog’s account would seem tirelessly dull. His talent is making an otherwise dull character seem interesting. Herzog is a middle-aged bore with too many hang-ups. Bellows uses his character as a puppet to reveal the mirage of ideas that Herzog exits within. While we get a whole novel inside Herzog’s mind and most of Ravelstein is about Abe Ravelstein; women are weirdly on the periphery. They lack a voice. Herzog and ‘Chick’ do the talking. Women have lines of dialogue, but their voice is dialled down, deemphasised by male explanation. Whatever women say is deconstructed, exposed for its flawed logic. This makes the narrative feel ‘locked in’, claustrophobic. Limited. Bellow’s male characters take centre stage. They rationalise the world, and yet fail to see their own irrationality. They are big babies. Angry and winging. Worrying about the inconsequential.

Some people write about goblins or talking rabbits. Bellows writes about men stuck within a haze of bullshit ideas. Ideas that make them unhappy. He writes about men without women. Herzog can’t understand women. Ravelstein has no need for women.

Herzog and Ravelstein are Romantic figures looking out across the American landscape. They are reminded of their ‘otherness’. Their otherness echoes their intellectual separateness, a certain smugness perhaps, and an overwhelming Jewishness in the face of a uniformly waspish American academia.

Herzog and Ravelstein (and ‘Chick, who is writing Ravelstein’s memoir) are searching for themselves. Searching for America. Never finding it. Because, no such thing exists. With all their grand posturing these ‘giants’, like the central character in Citizen Kane, are being carried along by life as much as anyone else. Hankering after simple, small things. Connections. Meanings.

Abe Ravelstein is close to death, dying from HIV. (‘Chick’s’ memoir is Bellow’s thinly disguised memoir of his own friend.) Herzog and Ravelstein explore the grand old mansion of the twentieth century, of twentieth century man. While the characters can be unpalatable, Bellow’s writing (and the observations of his characters) is remarkable. The unexamined life is not worth living – Ravelstein comments – but what if the examined life makes you wish that you were dead?

Ravelstein is contradictory. An intellectual who sees through the false gods, and yet he is a slavish consumer. He buys the latest 7 Series BMW, specially imported from Germany. He has a taste for the French fashion houses, and expensive Parisian hotels. During a Paris trip he stays at the same hotel as Michael Jackson. Ravelstein delights in his own excess – amused by the ridiculousness.

The message of these rumination stories is that you can’t escape your past. Ravelstein returns to his Jewish identity, forsaking the classical Greek world (another layer of bullshit ideas) for ‘Jerusalem’. We witness his declining health, and the near-death experience of ‘Chick’. We witness the circle of life coming to a close.

To be more accurate these two stories are rumination portraits. The characters reconcile themselves with the finite nature of life. Their ‘moment’ has gone. Or is about to go. And they know it. Lost youth. Lost importance. Loss. Always loss. Herzog ruminates on his life, fearing that he may have lost his sanity. ‘Chick’ ruminates on the loss of Ravelstein, his great friend. Everything that begins – ends.


Verdict: Herzog: Interesting. Ravelstein: Interesting.


[1] Conversations with Saul Bellow, Edited by Gloria L Cronin, and Ben Seigel (University of Mississippi Press, 1994).

2018–09–09


‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is Philip K Dick’s 1968 post-apocalyptic novel. It’s a world where people synthetically ‘dial up’ their mood, aspire to keep a real animal as a pet, and organic androids (built as a slave class) are escaping from Mars to the earth.

The novel is a series of extraordinary and fascinating ideas that don’t quite cohere into a satisfying story. There’s a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, a world ravaged by nuclear radiation, the abandoned suburbs, mass emigration to Mars, Mercerism (the religion of the day), which values empathy for all living things, keeping animals as a status symbol, human-like organic robots (the enemy within), the Voight-Kampff Test (a way of identifying non-human behaviour through an involuntary physiological response to a repugnant suggestion), and even sex with robots (which, in the novel, is against the law).

The plot of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is straightforward. Like his other novels, it begins in the ordinary world, the mundane reality of the everyday, a kind of dull version of 20th century middle-America. Rick Deckard wakes up and has a boring chat with his wife about the settings on their Penfold mood machine. The he goes up onto the roof of the building to feed his ‘electric’ sheep (his real sheep has been replaced by an ‘electric’ one). He has another dull conversation with his neighbour about their pets. It’s an inauspicious start, and a very different beginning to the film.

Dick’s preoccupation is world building. He enjoys taking us into his visionary society of the future, revealing the specifics of its culture. He does it through the experience of the central character. He’s keen to make it all real and plausible. In this future, ordinary people are struggling with problems and fears. They are dreaming of a better future. Just like us.

Their desires are focused on pointless status symbols, which they perceive as being essential to their happiness. This parallels consumerist notions of shopping for one’s identity, and expressing oneself through consumer purchases.

Dick’s world is a grubby one. And his characters’ motivations are equally grubby. Deckard kills androids so that he can afford to buy a real goat.

Blade Runner, the film of the novel, is an action adventure where the action takes precedence over the carefully observe minutiae of world building. As a visual medium we can see the world as the action unfolds. In Blade Runner we see the world of the future as soon the opening credits appear. Where the novel can exist within the detail of world building, the film efficiently suggests it through images, music, and sound. This allows the film to focus on the action: the bounty hunter tracking down killer androids.

Most of the novel takes place in rooms with talking heads. It’s static. The film offers movement: chase sequences, characters evading capture, flying cars, dramatic fight sequences.

The novel feels like a Hollywood detective film from the 1940s. A Film Noir, with the regular guy, Deckard, manipulated by the doe-eyed android, Rachael, the Femme Fatal. In the novel Rachael is coldly seductive, she herself is aware that she’s not human. She sleeps with Deckard, mistakenly believing that having sex with him will make him empathise with androids, and less likely to kill the remaining three. When Deckard does kill them (in what turns out to be a disappointingly short scene) she kills his newly acquired goat in revenge (throwing it off the roof of his building).

The empathy theme in the novel doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Rachael explicitly states that androids don’t protect one another because they don’t feel empathy. But she’s attempting to protect other androids. And other androids, operating in the guise of policemen (the enemy within) are working together.

Dick believed that humanity has lost touch with itself, because technology has encroached on our lives, altering our identity and understanding of ‘reality’. He was interested in the notion of simulation. Things that look real, but aren’t. Authenticity. Copies. The androids are simulations of humans. Copies. At what point does an android become real enough to be considered human?

Unlike Blade Runner, in the novel Deckard and his colleague both believe that they might be androids. Neither of them are. Deckard begins to feel empathy for androids, but after having sex with Rachael changes his mind when she tells him that she’s slept with other bounty hunters. Rachael is at the centre of this reversal. He almost kills her, but changes his mind.

At the end of the novel he cares for a toad that he finds in the radioactive wasteland. His wife discovers that the creature is an escaped electric toad, but does not tell him.

What is real? What is a simulation? Dick seems to say: if we believe something is ‘real’, then to us it is real.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner are different stories. They cannot be meaningfully reconciled. Ultimately, they both hinge on Deckard’s relationship with Rachael. In the novel she is a manipulative Femme Fatal. In Blade Runner she’s a doe eyed innocent, confused about her identity. In the novel Deckard sees her as a lifeless object. In Blade Runner he’s sympathetic to her, perhaps he’s in love. Blade Runner 2049 offers another version of the story, making its own conclusion.

2018–09–25


‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’

John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) is a masterclass in intelligent, lean, ‘commercial’ fiction. He uses words efficiently. He uses them to tell a story. The technique is complete and always sufficient for the purpose. Never overkill. There’s enough description to ‘paint a picture’. Enough character development to give a sense of inner change. Enough dialogue to create realistic scenes. Enough action to create drama. Enough character view points to provide a sense of depth and perspective. Enough – but never too much.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a spy story. It’s possibly the Cold War spy story. It’s gritty. Len Deighton’s Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin follow on in this manner. While Ian Fleming’s James Bond lives in a world of luxury and glamour. Spy work is generally grubby and unglamorous, we are led to believe. It’s dirty work. Alec Leamas exists within this world. It’s grey and dreary. It’s mundane and common place. He’s an older man, cynical, past his best perhaps. Burnt out. Dispensable. Harry Palmer is younger, cheekily boyish, playful. Bond is the comic-book alpha male – wish-fulfilment.

Spy work is mostly boring. Boringly stressful. Tireless self-sacrifice. It requires the kind of dedication that calls on almost superhuman levels of self-control. It involves keeping oneself emotionally distant, apart – out of reach, psychologically self-sufficient. That emotional distance is necessary in order not to give the game away. It’s requires a certain ‘coldness’. The level of control goes to the point of suppressing one’s own identity. Living within an assumed identity. It’s a process that can break the subject. Literally turning them insane.

Harry Palmer and James Bond may face glamorised violence, but it’s never as real as the ongoing psychological pressure Leamas faces. Most fictional secret agents are too busy seducing women, attending cocktail parties, or perfecting their wardrobe style. Harry Palmer is the common man transposed into the spy world. Bond is a fantasy, a seductive cliché of the comic book spy. Harry Palmer is a working-class hero who doesn’t enjoy killing people. Bond is a cultured psychopath. An aristocrat of sorts, hobnobbing with the elite in their casinos, strutting about in his fancy dinner suit. The ‘gentleman’ spy. A heroic psychopath. He murders his enemies and cracks infantile jokes about their gruesome death. We like him because he’s entertaining, an alpha-male, our monster unleashed on the enemy – it’s okay because he’s on our side. Alec Leamas is more of a pawn, enduring the horror of the world.

The story is told in third person, mostly from the viewpoint of Alec Leamas, and to a lesser extent Liz Gold. Some sections are omniscient but are used to move the story forward without getting in the way. They are not used to provide a space for the author to interject his opinions. All experience, internal thoughts, interpretations and making sense of the world takes place through the character viewpoint. John le Carré’s use of viewpoints is disciplined. They are there to deliver the story. Although it’s a third person viewpoint it often feels like it’s written in first person. We get inside the head of the character. But, John le Carré holds back on the information he provides to the reader. The plot reveals depend on this.

What kind of story is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold?

It’s a Cold War spy story. It’s love story. It’s a con story (confidence trick). It’s a courtroom drama. It’s a story about identity. About alienation and trust, or, conversely, about seeking connection and humanity. And it’s a tragedy.

Alec Leama’s has lost his soul. He may be middle aged and jaded. He may have sold his soul to Smiley and the Circus. He may be a patriot. He might have nothing left in his own life to live for. Either way – he’s lost his humanity. Liz Gold the sweet and naïve assistant librarian helps him to rediscover it. One of the themes of the story is that in fighting the monster our means of combatting the enemy become equally monstrous.

Does Leamas really love Liz?

He probably does, at least semi-consciously, during the affair. This is something John le Carré conceals from the reader. Even though we see inside the mind of Leamas, we only get to see the things John le Carré wants us to see. It’s highly selective. Leamas does appear to love Liz later on. He consciously decides that she represents the ‘meaning’ in his life. He rejects his spy identity (the cold). He makes a moral decision, and acts on it accordingly. This is what coming in from the cold implies. It’s more than forsaking operational duties to become a civilian. It’s letting go of a brutalised military identity, the ‘cold’ operative who obeys orders. It’s about opening himself up to the warmth of a real human connection – his love for Liz. This also makes him vulnerable. A dangerous thing for a spy. Human warmth is a luxury any proficient spy must shun if they wish to survive.

2018–11–11


‘Killing Commendatore’

Writers use words to create ideas and pictures. These experiences live in the mind of each reader. Although not technically real, these experiences feel real enough. And, if they feel real, then to all intents and purposes they are real to that person. This seems to be the message of Killing Commendatore, it’s a creative and contemplative journey about the interplay between the real world and the mind. It plays with the idea of ‘living ideas’, thoughts and concepts that come to life. They are devices to challenge the protagonist, and the reader.

While much of Haruki Murakami’s novel Killing Commendatore incorporates standard Murakami elements: the disaffected creative person alone in a house, the failed marriage or relationship, a hole in the ground, fantastic characters, portals to Murakami’s fantasy world, a girl with wisdom beyond her years, heavy metaphor, an easygoing narrator who seems open about his failings and fears, multiple love interests, someone in the past who has committed suicide, an old man on his deathbed (with associated recollections of Second World War atrocities), and all of this is set against a mystery-suspense story involving disparate elements (‘fishy’ clues that provoke questions). The overall effect is akin to a character from a Raymond Carver short story walking into a Raymond Chandler mystery, with the voice of a J D Salinger character (wistfully ruminating on his past, with a forlorn sense of emotional loss), and fantastic dream-world characters who might have been in a Terry Pratchet story.

The use of an ostensibly dull-but-nice-guy as the protagonist, a realistically depicted suburbanite who doesn’t quite ‘fit in’, who is preoccupied with his problems, combined with surrealist fantasy characters, creates a natural tension that challenges the reader. It echoes the relationship between the rational and the irrational. Murakami’s fantastic beings are conceptually straight out of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. The grey area between night and day, between awake and dreamscape. When the narrator goes ‘underground’ he leaves the day-world to venture into that dream world. It’s reminiscent of Charles Burns’ graphic novel X’ed Out, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (which is referenced earlier in the story).

The protagonist encounters a two foot tall creature that calls itself a living ‘Idea’. And later the protagonist meets a living double metaphor. I understand these characters as Murakami’s playful take on surrealism, or fantastic poetic license, or nonsense verse (take your pick). It’s probably a mistake to ascribe too much meaning to them. They’re Murakami’s leprechauns, or pookas, like the six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch tall, invisible rabbit in Harvey.

The variety of elements in Killing Commendatore should ideally mesh together to create resonance, to hook the reader’s curiosity. That’s the problem with this novel, it doesn’t quite deliver on that promise. The riddles and clues don’t lead to conclusions. It doesn’t feel like the journey takes us anywhere. It doesn’t help that the novel suffers from repetition, sections that feel simply dull, cringe-worthy moments, and the novel is far too long for its own good.

Murakami is great at making his central character come alive for the reader. We empathise with their ordinariness, but this time his protagonist seems a little off-kilter. The repetitive descriptions of breasts including the breasts of a 13 year old just seem weird: weird in a bad way. Is this Murakami being provocative? Is it an experiment in making the reader feel awkward and uncomfortable? Or a misstep? Either way it made me cringe. It’s not shocking so much as unnecessary. Likewise, sexual descriptions can seem bizarrely gratuitous, not adding to our understanding of the characters or the plot. Perhaps they were added during the editing stage to make otherwise uninteresting sections have some spice?

What is ‘Killing Commendatore’ about?

It’s a novel about the creative process, it even features a painter who’s battling between the choice of producing artistic or commercial work. It incorporates another artist who switches from modern art to traditional Japanese painting. In some respects the novel feels like a self-portrait (although it’s hard to know for sure without knowing the author), as if the writer is usurping the characters to have a dialogue with the reader, but it’s unclear what the implication of this dialogue is. Give space to your creative imaginings? The conversation around these topics is handled at a kind of pop-philosophy level. It could be a story about writing and being a writer, but hiding behind the camouflage of characters who paint.

Murakami is a magpie in the way he absorbs influences and ideas from different places. There are Western influences, and in Killing Commendatore it’s The Great Gatsby, but the narrative tone, themes, even plot devices that Murakami uses recall the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata (loneliness, alienation, lost love, melancholy, suicide, confused desires, and so on). Readers relate to the sensitivity and failings of his character’s in much the same way they do to Kawabata’s characters.

Murakami’s narrative works through the information it provides about the central character, and the information it leaves out. This allows the reader to believe that they have worked things out for themselves using clues within the text. This makes the reader feel perceptive and intelligent, but it’s all a deliberate construct on Murakami’s part. The reader is following the path that he has set. And the thoughts and views that he deliberately obscures or misses out adds to that character’s mystery.

The reoccurring tropes in Murakami’s work feel like he’s read up on the Auteur Theory and perfected the motifs of the ‘Murakami novel’, obliquely referencing his own works and recycling scenes, character types, and locations. In Killing Commendatore we have a character whose name refers to colourlessness, and who dresses in white: colourlessness is a word straight out of the title of a previous novel. It’s said that writers only write one novel, and then they write it again and again. Murakami certainly seems to live up to this notion and appears to have perfected the ‘Murakami formulae’.

The downside of Killing Commendatore is that it feels too self-aware of the ‘Murakami formulae’, and the ‘Murakami world’. As a result, it comes across as mechanical, as if he’s painting by numbers.

I was waiting for the pay-off, but it never arrived. I was waiting for something to grab me, but I wasn’t grabbed. I was hoping to leave with something meaningful, instead, I was left unmoved. The story is weirdly formless, like a door without a handle. The real merges with the unreal to a point where nothing matters. A character looses himself and then finds himself. The tacked-on ending has a different tone to the rest of the novel. The result is a journey that hasn’t taken us anywhere. It’s a mostly entertaining and accessible read, but it’s strangely hollow.

2018–12–29


‘The Man of Bronze: A Doc Savage Adventure’

The largely forgotten Doc Savage series of ‘pulp fiction’ novels dates back to 1933. They’re credited as the original American ‘superhero’ story, even predating Superman. The Man of Bronze was the first in the series.

Clark Savage, Jr. is part Sherlock Holmes (1887), and part Tarzan (1912). The Doc Savage character was created after the success of The Shadow. The Shadow was the name of the mysterious narrator who read out the stories on Detective Story Hour, a radio show featuring fiction from Detective Story Magazine. The Shadow became the show’s main attraction and the publisher rushed to cash-in on his popularity. They created original stories and a visual look for the character. The Shadow wore a distinctive black cloak with red lining (akin to a magicians cloak), and a wide brimmed hat. His first outing was in ‘The Living Shadow’ (1931).

The Shadow was more than a fighting hero, in the radio version he had magic-like powers. He could make himself semi-invisible, hypnotise others, and confuse or cloud a person’s mind. His ability to alter people’s thoughts was a precursor to Jedi mind control. After the success of The Shadow the publishers created another character, Doc Savage. Both The Shadow and Doc Savage went on to influence later pulp fiction and superhero characters. Doc Savage’s first name was Clark, and The Shadow’s was Kent, which may have led to Superman’s alias: Clark Kent. Doc Savage had a dome-shaped retreat in the Arctic, called the ‘Fortress of Solitude’ where he went to relax and study, and Superman had a similar hideaway, which was also called the ‘Fortress of Solitude’.

Doc Savage’s influences went beyond Superman, to include Bat-Man, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (which opened with a seaplane landing in a jungle river, a ‘lost’ tribe, and golden treasure, all lifted from Doc Savage).

The strange eclecticism of 1930s pulp fiction went beyond creative exuberance, it was a commercial necessity. Reusing previously successful story elements increased the chance of a new story finding success.

Doc Savage went from urban New York into the jungles of South America, where he (re)discovers an ancient Mayan tribe living in the Valley of the Vanished. The valley is hidden from the rest of the world: the lost civilisation was a popular trope at the time and it had been used as far back as The Lost World (1912), and She (1898). The incorporation of cross-genre stories and repurposing existing tropes led to film serials like The Phantom Empire (1935): a western, a musical, and a science fiction story with cowboys and robots and a lost civilisation living underground.

Doc Savage is a wealthy, cultured superhero, like Bat-Man’s Bruce Wayne. He has a band of odd-ball supporters, his Fabulous Five as he calls them. They are all men, and all eccentric types. This is very much a man’s world, which seems quite weird today. One of his Fabulous Five is Monk. He’s an ape-like man who also happens to be an expert chemist. Doc Savage lives on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. He has a fleet of glamorous cars and planes, which are all painted bronze. Doc Savage is described as a bronze statue, with bronze skin, bronze hair, and golden eyes.

Although the prose style of The Man of Bronze is dated by today’s standards, it’s still surprisingly readable. The chapter headings are grandly Art Deco, with the chapter numbers in Latin numerals. The chapter names are designed for maximum effect, loaded with mystery and menace. Chapter one, for example, is called, ‘The Sinister One’, and chapter two, ‘A Message From the Dead’. They’re overblown, and bombastic, not a million miles away from the language of Blast or a Mark E Smith lyric. The overly self-important and dramatic tone of the Doc Savage novels gives them a tonal quality along the lines of a 1930s British Pathé newsreel.

To my mind, Doc Savage’s physical resemblance to a living bronze statue makes him feel like a true ‘superhero’, rather than an ordinary man:

This looked like the head and shoulders of a man, sculptured in hard bronze. It was a startling sight, that bronze bust. The lines of the features, the unusually high forehead, the mobile and muscular, but not too-full mouth, the lean cheeks, denoted a power of character seldom seen.

Most marvellous of all were the eyes. They glittered like pools of flake gold when little lights from the table lamp played on them.

The bronze masterpiece opened its mouth, yawned — for it was no statue, but a living man!

Even Doc Savage’s teeth get the writer’s attention:

The bronze man showed wide, very strong-looking teeth, in yawning.

Some of the literary techniques can be a little rough. For example, this attempt at weaving in some subtle character detail into a dialogue tag is heavy handed:

‘We have no facts upon which to base suspicion!’ clipped Ham, the waspish Harvard lawyer whose quick thinking had earned him a brigadier generalship in the World War.

At other times the choice of words can seem a little strange. For example, ‘the room reeked silence’. I don’t think of silence as having a smell. At other times the attention to detail can seem overly precise: ‘Doc Savage was the last of the six to enter the adjoining room. But he was inside the room in less than ten seconds.’

And, some of the descriptions are surprisingly detailed for pulp fiction:

A bilious dawn, full of fog, shot through with a chill wind, was crawling along the north shore of Long Island. The big hangars at North Beach airport, just within the boundary line of New York City, were like pale-grey, round-backed boxes in the mist. Electric lights made a futile effort to dispel the sodden gloom.

Doc Savage is very much the cardboard cut-out alpha-male hero, one might call him a hollow action figure. We get to know a lot about his exercise routine but very little about what goes on between his bronze ears. While the novels don’t refer to his as ‘superhuman’ it’s made clear that he’s a sort of ultimate human, both in terms of his genius intellect and his perfect physical form. There’s little fear that an enemy could defeat him. His invulnerability can feel like arrogance. (His five buddies provide comic relief, and a point of vulnerability, requiring him to rescue them in later stories.)

Doc popped the corridor lights off as a matter of safety. He feared no encounter in the dark. He had trained his ears by a system of scientific sound exercises which was a part of the two hours of intensive physical and mental drill Doc gave himself daily. So powerful and sensitive had his hearing become that he could detect sounds absolutely inaudible to other people. And ears were all important in a scrimmage in the dark.

And, later on in a different scene:

Doc himself set off alone through the night. Thanks to the marvellous faculties he had developed by years of intensive drill, he had little fear of his enemies attacking him successfully.

I found Doc Savage’s rigorous exercise regime quite annoying:

Doc had taken his usual two-hour exercise long before dawn, while the others still slept.

The alluring ‘exotic’ Princess is another 1930s adventure trope. No trip into the jungle, to Mars, planet Mongo, or an underground civilisation, would be complete without an alluring Princess. And, wherever they are, they always seem to speak perfect English.

She was by a long stretch the most attractive of the Mayan girls they had seen. The perfection of her features revealed instantly that she was King Chaac’s daughter. She was nearly as tall as her father. The exquisite fineness of her beauty was like the work of some masterly craftsman in gold.

Predictably, the ‘entrancing’ Mayan princess from The Valley of the Vanished falls for Doc Savage, unfortunately he’s just not that into women. (He’s far too busy being a dashing adventurer.) One can’t feel a little sorry for the Princess though, and we are relieved to learn that, ‘She was, of course, well bred enough not to show her feelings too openly.’

Slowly it dawns on her that he’s probably too into himself and his tedious exercise routine:

Pretty Princess Monja was a sensible girl. She saw bronze, handsome Doc Savage was not for her. So she made the best of it. Bravely, she hid her disappointment within her bosom.

The baddie of the story, the evil Snake Man is a kind of Mayan witch doctor from the Valley of the Vanished. When he’s unmasked (in a completely Hardy Boys, and Scooby-Doo style exposé) he’s revealed to be ‘Don Rubio Gorro, secretary of state of the republic of Hidalgo’ the fictitious South American country where the adventure has taken place.

The 181 issues of the original Doc Savage lived on in a revamped 1960s comic, and a 1975 film. The film Doc Savage: Man of Bronze was supposed to be the first of many, but flopped at the box office. This was attributed to its high camp style (reminiscent of the 1960s Batman TV series). Its excessive American patriotism is so over-the-top it feels like satire. It was widely believed, at the time, that the audience wouldn’t accept the story unless it didn’t take itself too seriously. Later, in the same decade, Star Wars arrived, and it didn’t make the same mistake. Star Wars had a substantial budget, a much better script, a literally out-of-this-world story, and decent acting, so there’s little to compare.

Doc Savage is another fictional character who has taken his place in the pantheon of faded heroes, lost in the vastness of time, like The Shadow, and Dick Tracy, once beloved and now largely forgotten.

2019–02–20


‘Tristram Shandy’

I’m reading Tristram Shandy and I was really hoping that I would fall in love with it. I think the problem is that it was published in nine volumes over the best part of a decade, so it is the result of an elongated (almost serial) production process. It’s a novel in time, through time — so, taking on something like this in one go is always likely to be a challenge.

I haven’t read anything quite this old in a while and the wordiness of the language is a bit of a shock, as is the slow pace. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating work of art and it’s mind bogglingly ‘Modernist’ in the way it plays with storytelling convention.

I’ll keep on going and maybe (hopefully) I will eventually warm to it more. At least the chapters help to break up the text, all 363 of them! Maybe this is a novel to read one chapter a day over the course of a year?

Update 6 March 2020: I never did finish it.

2020–03–01


‘City Slickers’

City Slickers (1991) isn’t the kind of film you brag about watching, but when I remembered it the other day I decided to have a City Slickers and City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold mini-marathon. I have to say, I did enjoy the comedy and story, as well as the artefact of the thing itself.

Old films (books and magazines, etc) are wonderful documents of their times (or aspirations of how the audience, or the film studio, viewed themselves and their punters). While the artefact itself might not be art there’s always a rich cultural context.

Here, the ‘Old West’ story is reinvented for an audience more likely to be interested in space opera. The ‘Old West’ experience is now retold through the eyes of jaded middle-class (and affluent ones at that) corporate businessmen on a male-bonding holiday — the cowboy cliché being too tired a story to tell straight on. This is American culture repackaged into the theme park metaphor and, much like Westworld (1973), it asks questions about the nature of an ‘authentic’ experience, and a very Philip K Dick notion of real versus simulation. As popcorn film fodder from the early 1990s goes this hasn’t aged too badly.

2020–03–02


Early 90s gloom

If the 1980s were all glamour, money and drugs, and people with shoulder pads dancing badly at parties that could only exist in a Hollywood film, the early 90s, by contrast, went dark with economic recession and a rethink about the merits of ‘greed is good’. Suddenly, films were exploring the mainstream perception of the system and corporate culture through a cynical lens. The system was exploitative, a brutal dog-eat-dog world where only psychopaths got to the top.

In A Shock to the System (1990), a black comedy starring Michael Caine, a corporate executive discovers that he can have everything he wants simply by getting rid of the people who are in his way — by murdering them. This is a decade before the novel *American Psycho- and its possible executive killer. In Swimming With Sharks (1994), what could be better than torturing your boss and, in the process, seeing eye to eye with him as fellow psychopaths who can now understand one another?

The cult TV series, Profit (1996 - 2002) also featured a dark protagonist whose amoral behaviour reflected the callousness of the corporate world. His need for power and his depraved behaviour was linked in with the corporate world, which he saw as a substitute ‘family’ as well as a place where he could play out his revenge. In a way, it was okay if he did bad things because the people he was doing those things to were all ‘guilty’ (at least within the moral framework of the storytelling universe). Whatever Jim Profit did, the audience could excuse his behaviour, because his victims were rotten.

While the economy bounced back by the mid 90s, negative perceptions of the system and the elite never fully recovered. The Titanic (1997) sent out the message that we were all on a sinking ship, and by 1999 (perhaps also fused with pre-millennial tension) films were questioning the nature of reality itself — what was real and what was an illusion? In films like The Matrix (1999) and the underrated Dark City (1998) nothing was what it seemed — perhaps the oldest and best story worth telling.

The system was rigged and it required an outsider to set things right. You could argue that the popular resentment, the background criteria necessary for Trumpism to flourish many years later, originated back in the early 90s with its resolute disbelief in the system, before Obama, and 25 years before Trump’s election victory.

Fiction reflects contemporary fears and desires. Those perceptions mirror the health of the economy, the prevailing political consciousness, global power and fashions. There are actions and reactions, from economic boom to bust, from conservatism to liberalism, from flares to drain pipes, from McCarthyism to the counterculture.

One can only wonder, in today’s seemingly extraordinary world, what the films playing in the cinema are saying about us now (and about our future), films like: ‘1917’, Parasite and Joker.

2020–03–04


‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao a novel by Junot Díaz, presents the reader with violence, machismo, injustice, sexism, and tenderness. It’s a virtuoso extravaganza packed with references to nerdy popular culture, and highbrow literature. The prose is so dense with wit and puns that you find yourself stopping to reread memorable lines that you can’t let yourself forget. This ticks the ‘I wish I’d written something vaguely like that’ box, although of course only the author, Junot Díaz, could have written this novel because it’s uniquely his.

2020–03–08


‘Joker’

Joker is not what I’d call a fun watch but it is one of those films that you’re glad you’ve seen once you’ve seen it. It’s a visually impressive and artistically cohesive work that feels very accomplished and creatively complete. It could be the best superhero genre film that I’ve ever seen. (I’d probably have to rewatch Batman Beings to confirm that… but my hunch is that Joker takes the top slot). It’s not an uplifting story in any way, but it’s definitely thought provoking.

2020–03–09


‘Sky Saw’

I don’t usually discover much ‘new’ music, so when I do it’s a rare delight… A friend recently recommended some early Brian Eno where I happened on ‘Sky Saw’. I stayed away from this phase in Eno’s career when I was into ‘ambient’. I suppose the 70s vocals frightened me off. ‘Music for films’ and ‘Cluster and Eno’ are old favourites. But ‘Sky Saw’ (on ‘Another Green World’) is something. Genius even. ‘Burning Airlines Give you so Much More’ (on ‘Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy’) is great too (the comic tone and sound is reminiscent of Half Man Half Biscuit). And, of course, there’s ‘Another Green World’, the track itself (or the BBC Arena intro music as most people know it). Oh to be in an ‘art band’, noodling stuff like this live, Jazz performance style. Wouldn’t that be great?

2020–03–10


Meg Hewitt

I’ve just discovered Meg Hewitt’s photography… You can go in two directions as a photographer… either you up-the-quality and act all refined and whatnot, or you can just think fuck it (in an aesthetic sense, and your attitude becomes part of your aesthetic). I’ve always been torn between the two but I have always admired the grainy high contrast black and white work of photographers like Josef Koudelka (‘Exiles’) and Trent Parke (‘Minutes to Midnight’), which tread this path albeit somewhat cautiously. Having said this, the ‘I don’t give a fuck’ aesthetic has to be worked at damned hard to get the exact balance right between total shite… and chaotic genius. Her work is definitely up there.

2020–03–10


Living science fiction

Coronavirus (Covid-19) is like something out of a low budget sci-fi film. A mysterious virus killing an anxious population, huge areas in quarantine, citizens wearing surgical masks, and medics in hazmat suits.

A scenario like this needs a few high-tech or new-speak terms… ‘Covid-19’ and ‘self-isolation’. Forced into isolation, people begin to react in different ways… introspection, claustrophobia, depression, signing opera from balconies and rooftops, some even acquiring a newfound spirituality. The scenario becomes a metaphor for a people (re)discovering their humanity. Or, at least, the protagonist discovering his/her humanity (hopefully).

There will almost certainly be a government cover-up, and possibly even an ambitious politician keen to use the moment to seize control for him/herself and begin a new dictatorship (maybe with the help of a mad general and a shady corporation headed by a megalomaniac business tycoon). Can I get in any more clichés? Probably not. But the weird thing is that all of it is true, except for this paragraph.

What happens when real life turns into science fiction?

2020–03–13


The luxury of personal creativity

After the Holocaust some artists gave up art believing (with good justification) that nothing could express the horrors of the concentration camps. It was better to put one’s life to the service of other people, or to fight injustice. Other artists switched to more deliberately abstract art forms, or from prose to poetry.

Art and personal creative production isn’t a given. It’s an indulgence of sorts, a luxury associated with a selfishly comfortable lifestyle, having enough ‘leisure time’ to pursue these interests. I’m not keen on loaded terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘entitlement’ (which have become stand-ins for expletives) but any of us who have time for ‘personal creativity’ (either for ourselves or for a wider audience) are lucky indeed.

2020–03–15


‘The Book of Eli’

The Book of Eli (2010) is a weird mishmash, a kind of waterless Waterworld for the Twenty First Century. I don’t want to be disparaging because I did enjoy watching this film. It ticks a lot of boxes, post-apocalyptic (tick), the lone hero (tick) wandering through a desert landscape (tick) with tones of Mad Max (tick), quiet but powerful hero (tick)… but what really struck me is the film’s visual look and its colourisation. The images have been digitally desaturated and treated in a heavily stylised way by upping the contrast. While it’s not as harsh an effect as Sin City it’s still quite oppressive. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) also played around with a high contrast effect (deep blacks and impenetrable shadows) a kind of classic Kodachrome look. I wonder if this film would have been better if it had looked more ‘natural’… or if it would have made the whole thing feel too ordinary?

2020–03–15


‘Housesitter’

Housesitter (1992) is one of those you’ve got to watch it as an artefact from the past kind of films, a document of its time. The plot is the usual ‘light comedy’ Hollywood love triangle, a romantic mix up of identities that’s straight out of an Oscar Wilde play.

This time it’s Newton Davis the uptight architect (Steve Martin… what a run of Hollywood success he had) and Gwen Duncle (Goldie Hawn being Goldie Hawn… the adorably sassy and cute-but-annoying love interest). Here she’s pretending to be Newton’s wife after they have a one night stand. She leaves the city and stages a takeover of his country house and impresses herself on his family and ex-girlfriend, persuading them that Newton is madly in love with her and that they have had a shotgun marriage (a kind of Holly Golightly in reverse).

The moral of the story is: living a life of crazy bullshit is better than not feeling alive. Thematically it’s a kind of Cinderella story where Gwen’s bullshit replaces the fairy godmother’s magic. There’s reality and illusion, a class divide (middle class architect meets working class waitress who is also an orphan), the American dream, and Howard’s inability to get over his ex. The American dream is attainable through a magical discovery process that Gwen initiates through her fantastic stories. They can have the dream and become transformed in the process, each one making the other a better and a more complete person. Success is its own kind of alchemy and bluster will win the day for anyone audacious enough to try it. Cut to shot of Howard and Gwen kissing and loud uplifting music.

2020–03–15


‘Black Rain’

Black Rain (1989) is a product of the late 1980s, a time when America was reeling from Japanese industrial success, and a fear that Japan had overtaken the US technologically, that the US was in terminal decline; a spent, lazy nation, that had grown complacent. What remained of American big business and Wall Street was greedily selling out its own people for a quick buck (as exemplified by the film Wall Street released two years earlier). In the words of Matsumoto Masahiro, the Japanese Detective working with the two American Cops in Black Rain:

Perhaps you should think less of yourself and more of your group, try to work like in Japanese. I grew up with your soldiers; you were wise then. Now — music and movies are all America is good for. We make the machines, we build the future, we won the peace.

Black Rain first reaffirms this view and then undermines it through a story of American resilience, the ‘American spirit’, and the American hero’s ability to adapt when facing adverse challenges. This comes through when the US detectives find trust, loyalty and friendship in a fellow Japanese Cop — and succeed through their ability to forge new relationships. What doesn’t change however is that Japanese criminals, Japanese gangsters (the Yakuza) are, like American criminals, bad, brutal and willing to use extreme violence.

The storytelling world of Black rain is a Bladerunner-esque future world, a world that exists now, with a baffling, alien culture, a culture that is as confusing and mysterious to the two detectives as a society from another planet. This is very much the story of a journey into a strange world.

The film fits neatly into a post-war history of American storytelling about Japan and Japanese culture, one that precedes the Second World War. In WW2 propaganda films the Japanese were ‘the baddies’ an ‘evil race’ intent on world domination through violent conquest. After the end of the Second World War Hollywood began to view Japan as a less dangerous but nonetheless ‘exotic’ world, with different customs, but through a more humanised context. The Japanese were no longer the ‘monstrous enemy’, but ordinary people.

In Tokyo Joe (1949) the Japanese were still viewed with suspicion, but by Sayonara (1957) a US Airforce pilot falls in love with a Japanese woman, and together they experience discrimination and racial prejudice, leading to a tragic ending. 1974s Yakuza sets the bar for an American protagonist in Japan, facing a foreign culture, but gradually able to comprehend it. Like Black Rain it also features the yakuza, and learning to ‘do business’ ‘the Japanese way’. And, like Black Rain a new relationship is formed between the American protagonist and a Japanese character based on understanding, trust and true partnership. Lost in Translation (2003) returns to cultural differences, but does so affectionately, and The Last Samurai (2003) surgically inserts an all-American hero into Japanese history, once again returning to the formula of the adaptable foreigner who finds success by learning to think like the Japanese.

The message of Black Rain is mostly a celebration of seeking understanding between cultures and forming friendships based on mutual respect. The American Detective is only able to triumph because he has the complete trust of his Japanese counterpart. And, in the end, instead of allowing himself the satisfaction of killing the Japanese antagonist, he hands the man over to the Japanese police, allowing his friend to save face, and retain his dignity.

Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) goes full circle by telling the story of Japanese soldiers in a bloody Word War Two battle, from the Japanese perspective, emphasising the empathy in the way contemporary Hollywood views Japan, which is far removed from the old black and white war films produced during and after the war.

Black Rain is more than a dumb ‘Cop movie’, it fits into a history of US-Japanese storytelling, and while it encapsulates a time when America was fearful about Japanese technological dominance, and was preoccupied with its economic decline, it celebrates friendship and mutual understanding. The economic rivalry of America and Japan in the 1980s and 90s eerily parallels America’s relationship with China today.

2019–01–29


The Christmas story

The original Christmas story is the birth of Jesus Christ in Nazareth. It is, literally, the story of a birth, the birth of a new hope. Two thousand years later the Christmas message has turned into mainstream fictional entertainment, much of the Christian teaching has been subsumed by cross-genre plots like the comedy, the romcom, the buddy story, and stories about reversals of fate and fortune. They are warnings about loss (the loss of kindness, of generosity, and of humanity), and celebrations of the Christmas spirit through a redemptive ending (celebrations of newfound generosity, the rediscovery of acts of sharing and kindness, compassion, forgiveness, overcoming pride, being more honest with oneself, and generally learning to be a better person). These are ‘feel good’ stories with a moral heart.

While it wasn’t the first Christmas story, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843) has become the best known Christmas tale. Fittingly, it’s a cross-genre story that merges the ghost story with a morality-based redemptive ending. The Christmas setting gives the story a contrast between the coldness of winter against the warmth of human goodness. When three ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge, showing him his callous selfishness, he realises that he must change his ways. His new behaviour also transforms the lives of those around him. It makes his life more meaningful and happier. The tale has been retold in countless theatrical productions, radio plays, and films: from Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (1901) to Scrooged (1988), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), and A Christmas Carol (2009) .

In It’s Wonderful Life suicidal George Bailey is forced to rethink his life when an angel takes him around his town, showing him a world where he never existed. The plot device has similarities to A Christmas Carol except the protagonists moral position is reversed: he is a good man who isn’t aware of his own goodness, or how his goodness has made the world a better place.

Mainstream Christmas films often feature a central character who has fallen into cynicism or materialism and must be reminded about the Christmas message. This may involve some Christmas ‘magic’, an intervention by Santa Claus or one of his helpers, or a Good Samaritan type of character.

In romcom versions of the Christmas story (especially made for television films) two characters are mutually attracted to one another, but one (or both) of them stubbornly refuses to contemplate getting into a relationship. They must be reminded about the importance of giving love a chance, taking a risk, seeing beyond their career — and learning to embrace their family and friends.

The importance of family is a recurring theme in the Christmas story. In National Lampoons Christmas Vacation(1989), Clark Griswold does everything he can to provide a traditional Christmas for his family, just like the ones he enjoyed as a boy, and to protect his family from the harsh realities of the world. In Jingle All the Way (1996) another father, Howard Langston, realises that his workaholic lifestyle has alienated him from his wife and son. He attempts to compensate for his lack of attention by obtaining the last Turbo-Man action figure for his son. His quest results in self-discovery and redemption. What his son really needs is a father who spends more time with his child.

Sometimes a magical being is the catalyst for change, an elf, or a snowman. In The Snowman (1982), a living snowman takes a boy on a fantastic journey to the North Pole. And in Jack Frost (1998) a deceased father revisits the world of the living, and his son, by taking on the form of a snowman. In Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Bad Santa (2003) two unlikely Characters are mistaken for the real Santa Claus, and (even if they are or not) other peoples’ faith in them has a transformative effect on their predicament, and their belief in themselves.

In the buddy story Deck the Halls (2006) two neighbourhood enemies who loathe one another discover each others’ finer qualities. After a heated battle of wits they find forgiveness and friendship.

The Christmas story is a ‘feel good’ story, full of hope. It’s a place where decency and humanity triumphs. Part of its appeal is that are no ‘win/lose scenarios’, because there are no losers — only winners.

2018–11–27


‘Hereditary’

In Hereditary (2018) a family disintegrates under pressure from external forces. It’s a force they’re unprepared for, unable to defend against. A force later revealed to be a paranormal entity. A power beyond their comprehension. An entity capable of extreme horror.

The tension is created by holding back on fully revealing the paranormal forces. The majority of the film plays out as a family drama. Most horror stories declare the paranormal connection relatively early on and rely on sudden frights to shock the audience. There are shocking moments in Hereditary. Moments of extreme violence. But the story is really about the mystery and suspense created by downplaying the paranormal element for a long as possible, making the audience believe the family is plagued by bad luck and mental health issues.

It’s an attractively shot film, visually alluring. One could easily see it as an art house movie masquerading as a horror film. The blurring of genre expectations, the low-key build up, the pervasive strangeness, and the stand-out moments of disturbing violence make it harder to fathom what kind of story are in. The ambiguity makes it unsettling.

Part of the creepiness comes from the horror of awkwardness. Comedy has long-championed awkward humour, but in Hereditary horror claims it back as its own. The horrific awkwardness is almost unwatchable when the son loses control of his body, experiencing violent spasms in front of his classmates. The mother, increasingly paranoid and desperate, is unable to contain her grief, unable to keep her family together – unable to work out what’s going on until it’s too late. The father watches on in disbelief. They are doomed by a force beyond their imagination. A force that is already inside their family (the enemy within). And when the paranormal forces are revealed they are more bizarre than anything we could have expected.

Like many horror stories, Hereditary is about ‘irrational’ forces. Our rational explanations, our logic and faith in science can only take us so far. The daughter in The Exorcist, for example, is investigated by psychologists and neurologists. They cannot help her. These ‘beyond logic’ horror stories undermine our belief in a rational, science-based understanding of the world – they reaffirm our fear and suspicion, our gut-instinct, that there are strange forces operating in the real world.

Hereditary plays with our delineation between a ‘weird coincidence’ and a suspicion that an occurrence fits into a recognisable pattern. The point at which random ill fortune can be blamed on someone or something. Our survival instinct is all about spotting danger within the ordinary. Horror films exercise this skill.

In their time, films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby took horror to a new level. Watching them now, although well executed, they are of their time. Hereditary takes the horror film genre back into that zone of uncomfortable viewing. The realistically depicted family characters, and the ordinariness of the domestic scenes drives the tension.

What does the story mean?

It is a warning of dark powers in the world, forces beyond the rational. This warning is echoed in stories like Barton Fink, and Mulholland Drive. It’s a story the audience can relate to, parents struggling to keep a family together, coping with the stresses of contemporary life, fitting in and not fitting in. The mother’s artworks hint at her semi-conscious awareness of the dark forces affecting the family, and her inability to confront them in real life.

The story plays with genre expectations like, Get Out, we wonder if it is a social drama about small town racism, a horror, or a science fiction story. Hereditary plays the same game, disorientating the audience.

What kind of story is this? This anxiety matches fears in contemporary society – disturbing events in our lives and on the news. What’s going on? What kind of story are we in?

2018–10–21


‘Texasville’

Texasville (1990) is the sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971). Thirty years later, Duane, a handsome young oil worker, is now a middle-aged father, a husband, and an oil business entrepreneur. His wife is an alcoholic, his children are running amok, and his dog is his only friend.

Dysfunction abounds.

He tries to make a difference, but nothing works. It doesn’t help that he’s a natural rogue, and emotionally closed-off. As a result, he’s resigned to his fate. Worrying about those around him. Allowing himself to be miserable and unfulfilled. He cheats on his wife. She cheats on him. It’s an acrimonious circle of lies and mutual contempt.

On the face of it, Duane is the town’s big success. He personifies the American dream. But his business is $12 million in debt. Oil money has come and gone. Duane’s family lives in a large home. They have a maid. Everything is on credit.

Duane is in trouble: much like America.

When we left Duane in The Last Picture Show he was handsome, young and dumb – ready to take on the world. He’d lost the town’s ‘sweetheart’, Jacy, and fallen out with his best friend (blinding Sonny in one eye). Incredibly he’d made up with Sonny shortly before being conscripted into the army.

Thirty years later…

Duane has made a life for himself in the town. He’s settled down and married, become an ‘oil man’. In spite of his superficial success nothing has worked out how he imagined. Jacy has ended up in Europe, living in Italy, enjoying a moderately successful acting career.

Back in Texas, dysfunction still resonates through the town, like a dark spell. It’s the same backwater it always was. Irrelevant. Dreary. A place of full of low expectations. It’s not quite as remote or cut off as it once was, but it’s still a nowhere town. And, Duane is middle aged. Getting fat. Neither he, nor any of the other characters have what they want.

Then, Jacy, the town’s ‘it’ girl, returns from glamorous Italy, after the death of her son. It’s unclear what her status is with her husband. Are they together? Are they separated? Whatever it is, she’s returning to her roots, hoping to reconnect with herself.

While The Last Picture Show featured an ensemble of characters, Texasville focuses more on Duane and Jacy. It’s their story. A story about growing up. Responsibilities. Being an adult. Dashed hopes. Letting go of youth. Letting go of impetuousness. The characters come to terms with who they are. It’s about friendship: rediscovering meaning and value through other people.

The Last Picture Show depicted a Carveresque world before Raymond Carver. A town of working-class people. Unfulfilled lives. Broken dreams. Broken hearts. Sonny has never recovered from Billy’s death at the end of The Last Picture Show. Now, in Texasville he’s experiencing increasingly problematic mental health problems. It’s getting to the point where he can’t differentiate between his imaginings and the real world. He’s a danger to himself. But his friends are there when he needs them, rallying around him to provide support. Although Sonny and Duane had put their differences aside at the end of The Last Picture Show, deep down Sonny resents Duane’s apparent success.

When Duane helps to organise the town festival, the town’s authentic rural roots are revealed to be little more than a glitzy heritage theme park. A museum of kitsch. The highpoint of classic Americana featured in The Last Picture Show has been replaced by the bland commercialism of modern America. The ‘Old American West’ has become a parody of itself.

Duane befriends Jacy within this changed world. This time their relationship is based on friendship, and not on lust. She frees him from the prison that he’s made for himself. This allows him to rethink his life, and to rebuild his marriage. And, through him, she is able to move on from her loss.

The town, and the people, have changed – and they have endured that change. For Duane and Jacy the town will always be their home. For Duane, the stupidity of youth has given way to newfound perspective and wisdom. Now that he has a real friend in Jacy, he allows her to take his dog. In contrast, Sonny, haunted by the past, and unable to reach out to Duane, is denied a future.

2018–10–02


‘Lost’

The television series Lost aired from 2004 to 2010. It helped change the way TV series are conceptualised, switching from an episodic story arc, to a longer-form journey stretching across an entire series.

In literary terms the story arc changed from a repeated short story formula (one that reset at the start of every episode), to a novelistic approach. Each episode became a chapter within a wider-reaching, more ambitious story. Shows like Mad Men (2007 to 2015) and Breaking Bad (2008 to 20013) continued this novelistic type narrative, which allowed characters to develop over time.

Lost created a ‘world’ complete with its own laws and possibilities. Episode one introduced a terrifying, and mysterious monster. There are strange sounds reverberating from the jungle, something is knocking over trees as at moves about. Could it be a dinosaur? Is this some sort of Jurassic Park? Could it be a giant beast, something like King Kong?

In episode two Sawyer kills a rampaging polar bear. What’s a polar bear doing on a tropical island? Was this the monster introduced earlier? The survivors listen to a mysterious radio message broadcast by a French woman. The short SOS has been continually transmitted for 16 years. ‘Where are we?’ Charlie asks prophetically. No one can answer his question.

We are on ‘The Island’. It’s a fictional, fantastic, surreal world — a magical realist, storytelling universe.

Lost uses reoccurring motifs to imbue the narrative with distinctive character. It’s almost like a branding process. These elements range from the visual, like the close up of a character’s eye opening at the start of each flashback, to the auditory, such as the distinctive music, and sound effects.

The lingering opening credits stay around for ages, creating the feeling that so much has happening even before the episode has ‘started’. The word ‘Lost’ comes into focus, the title of the show, backed by abrupt and discordant music. The ‘previously on Lost’ recap, and the song at the end of many episodes. These motifs are all very Lost.

The remarkable thing about Lost is how well the two pilot episodes set-up the whole fictional world. They create the world that will take six seasons to fully explore. Within those two episodes the characters, and any possible conflicts between them are set out.

Jack the good guy, the protagonist, the hero, always thinks about helping other people. He’s a Mr Nice. He is a calm man. Always able to keep his cool in a crisis. But, we learn from his backstory that he’s not always been so controlled. There’s a glimmer of romance between him and Kate. But, we also learn about her hidden side through her own flashbacks — a backstory that Jack has no idea about. There are other characters. Charlie is a has-been rock star with a chaotic past. Sawyer is a self-serving badass, Jack’s antagonist. But is Sawyer all bad? Michael is a father, struggling to communicate with his son, Walt. Hugo is the comic character, who humanises situations. Locke is a troubled character. Sayid has a dark past. And there’s a Korean couple with relationship issues. Right from the get-go there are enough variables for dramatic conflict.

Lost famously answered questions with more questions in an attempt to retain audience attention. The ordinariness of air crash survivors on a tropical island beginning their day-to-day survival could have turned into a soap opera on a jungle island. Instead, it became a surreal mashup of science fiction and fantasy.

The foreshadowing of the polar bear, with Walt reading a comic featuring a huge polar bear signalled the possibility of strange forces at work. Is there a reciprocal relationship between the thoughts of characters and events that occur later? Maybe. Maybe not.

In episode three Sawyer began his flirtatious, cheeky, relationship with Kate. He brings a cynicism and playful edginess into the mix that sensible Jack lacks.

Lost is all about disconnects. It revels in disconnects. Part of the viewer’s job is to sift through the mixed-signals, to make sense of the garbled plot-line. To work out connections where there is an absence of certainty. Lost is a fantasy world where the normal rules of time and space don’t apply. It’s a latter-day Robinson Crusoe, part survival soap opera, part fantasy tosh. Much of the plot doesn’t make any sense, especially in the later seasons.

Right from episode one we begin the flashbacks, starting with Jack. The story widens, exploring the backstories of the other characters. Each one has a history of identity related challenges that they must face. The backstories offer insights into the characters; set in context to the dramatic action. This creates tension by delaying the conclusion of the action sequences. And, it slows the overall pace.

As season one progresses we discover that one of the survivors – Ethan – was not in the plane when it crashed. How could this be possible? Logically, he must have come from the island. But Charlie shoots Ethan dead when he’s captured. Maintaining the mystery of where the man originated from.

Later, Locke discovers ‘the hatch’. This door to another part of the story is discovered in episode 12, but it’s only picked up in episode 17 (five episodes later). For almost a quarter of the season the audience is left wondering what this bizarre hatch is all about. The hatch is only opened on the season finale. And even then, we don’t get to see what’s inside. We have to wait for season two to discover that.

Season two begins with one of the best season openings of any TV series. A man in an apartment makes a smoothie, works out on an exercise bike, listens to a record playing on a retro turntable. Who is this person? Why are we opening with him his home? What has this got to do with the Island?

Lost continually throws the audience, confusing, and confounding their expectations. The disconnect is part of its delight. Series two ends with an electromagnetic trace of the Island being detected by a polar listening team. Who are they? Why are they there? What relationship do they have with the Island?

Series three starts with the opening eye motif, retro music playing, a women taking burnt muffins out of an oven. She’s hosting a boring book club in what appears to be a dull town (‘small town America’). Why were we here? What does this have to do with the Island?

The power of Lost, its disconnect comes from good old fashioned mystery. The audience has to work out how and why different plot elements connect. Flashbacks become flash-forwards. The non-linear narrative creates further confusion, further mystery.

The Lost world had similarities to computer game narratives. The island in Far Cry (2004) for example with its ruins and deserted buildings and wrecked ships. Computer games often mashup different genre elements. Return to Castle Wolfenstein combines a WW2 action story with a time traveling science fiction fantasy. The precedent for the disconnect in Lost exists within computer games.

When the others capture Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, Jack is questioned by a female psychologist who knows everything about him. She even has the autopsy report on his father at hand. How is this possible? Why does she have all this information about him on a remote jungle island? Lost shows us the impossible, and then (later) explains how it happened.

What does Lost teach us about building compelling plots?

It tells us to create interest by incorporating a deep sense of mystery. And to create further interest by introducing even greater mystery. Lost introduces dilemmas for the characters. Jack must choose between obeying his Hippocratic oath and saving the life of Benjamin Linus (the leader of the hated ‘Others’) or betraying his oath and deliberately sabotaging a spinal operation.

Plot reversals, changes of fortune, changes of alliances, heated rivalries, shifting romantic interests are all at the heart of Lost. The story constantly changes viewpoints and perspectives. It plays with the audience’s perception of ‘the truth’. It creates situations that test and challenge the characters, revealing their weaknesses and strengths. While none of these techniques are new (there’s a long tradition of this is in serial fiction from literature to movie serials like Flash Gordon) it hooks the audience’s attention.

Tantalised with tidbits, scant information, and possibilities, the audience anticipates the payoff. A satisfying ending. It’s debatable if the audience got this at the end of Lost. Either way, the viewers put up with increasing confusion and incoherence because they were invested in the characters. They were waiting for the end, to find out what happened to Jack, Sawyer and Kate.

2018–09–29


The place is alive

At first the Island in the TV series Lost appears to be just another tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. And then one of the survivors from the plane crash is attacked by an unknown beast – a polar bear. Why is there a polar bear in a tropical jungle?

The impossibility of a polar bear running around a tropical rainforest sets the tone for the entire series. It says: expect strange things. The Island is a mysterious place. A place where the inexplicable happens, weird unidentifiable noises are heard in the night, the grass literally whispers weird nothings, a sentient black cloud drifts across the land dispensing its own justice. The place is alive.

In storytelling terms the Island has all the personality traits of a living character. It does things that alters the outcome of the story. It has a mind.

A properly described location contributes to the tone and atmosphere of a story. A living environment goes beyond that to become another character in the narrative. These spaces may be natural environments (forests, mountains, swamps) or buildings and structures, in the widest sense (houses, castles, hotels, spaceships).

A living, breathing environment imbues a story with a sense of magic, of the extraordinary. In Avatar the planet Pandora is a whole-living being. It’s more than just a jungle. Having a location that seems to be alive is especially important in fantasy fiction. It helps to create a sense of otherworldliness. It literally helps make the ordinary come alive.

Having a place that is alive creates an arena for horror, for the surreal, or for comedy. It provides another variable to the story, something that can change the predictable outcome. It may act as the antagonist, the antagonist’s assistant, or as the hero’s helper. It can be a force for good, or bad. In science fiction a man made, or alien structure, like a spaceship, can be alive through extra-terrestrial forces or artificial intelligence.

In The Lord of The Rings series, the forests are actually alive. The trees are living beings with all the traits of a human character. In other stories like The Perfect Storm, nature might not technically be ‘alive’, but it feels like a living, breathing antagonist, one that needs to be battled with and outsmarted. This is the man versus nature story, the battle of wills.

When buildings are portrayed as living it often means that they have been possessed by a paranormal force (magic, spells, satanic forces). The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Barton Fink, Poltergeist, and The Haunting are all examples of the haunted house, the building possessed by dark forces.

The haunted house scenario forces rational characters into conflict with irrational and horrific powers. It tells us that some things in life don’t make sense. There are forces out there beyond our control.

In * 2001: A Space Odyssey* Hal, a robot, takes over the spaceship and murders the crew. Although this is a science fiction story, Hal is essentially a ghost in a haunted house. Hal is a benevolent force that turns malicious; a machine, programmed to be rational, but, once possessed – a demon. In Solaris the rational crew of a spaceship come into proximity to a natural phenomenon that alters their consciousness. The rational, scientific world meets the extraordinary, the inexplicable. In The Demon Seed another robot with advanced AI takes over a physical space (a domestic house), giving itself and the building the qualities of a conscious entity with its own ‘body’ and ‘limbs’.

Buildings can have a strange influence on the characters who live in them, without explicitly being alive. The tower block in High Rise sends its inhabitants insane. The mountaintop building in Black Narcissus is never portrayed as alive, but it has an unnatural psychological presence that forces the nuns in it to flee.

The living environment, from fantasy, natural catastrophe, and horror, to science fiction, creates added interest for the storyteller. The protagonist must operate within this space, fight against it, or use it to his or her own advantage. It is an enemy, or a helper. The living environment turns an ordinary world into an extraordinary one.

2018–09–19


The three ages of the storyteller

The circle of life – the three ages – also works as a way of understanding the kinds of stories that storytellers share. Just as people go through different life stages; so do storytellers. Stories reflect the three life ages: pre-adult, adult, old adult.

You can re-skin these three ages in various ways: — child, worker, pensioner — future hoping, experiencing adult, remembering adult — everything to gain, everything to lose, everything about to be lost — innocence, sex, death — the promise, the delivery of the promise, the rewards of the promise — pre-career, career, post-career — the unknown, the risen star, the legend — the unknown, the risen star, the fallen star — child, parent, grandparent

The different ages are really based on life experience. The pre-adult lacks a sense of perspective. The adult has perspective, and the older adult has greater perspective. These ‘storyteller ages’ are viewpoints based in a linear timeline, a journey. They reflect the author’s perception of the world based on their ability to understand their own experiences. They reflect the writer’s own relationship with time.

The storyteller is not necessarily stuck within their own age-related phase. J D Salinger is famous for his coming of age novel The Catcher in the Rye, which he wrote as an adult. It’s a story about the experience of an adolescent. Holden Caulfield’s personality and inexperience means that he is unable to understand the adult world. He doesn’t get it. It’s not everything else that’s wrong – or ‘phoney’ – it’s him.

Salinger wrote about the adult world using the perspective of an adolescent (an outsider). Using an adolescent central character emphasises the relative innocence of the main character against the strangeness and hypocrisy of the next age (the adult world).

As an adult writer, Salinger said: ‘Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all of my best friends are children.’ What he means is that adult friendships are never as complete and honest as the friendships we had as children. Normal Mailer commented about Salinger: ‘I seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.’ Salinger’s protagonist is a character who never becomes an adult. He is a character who never understands the world. A character who is an ‘outsider’ in the ordinary world.

The pre-adult central character is suspicious and fearful of the world. He or she longs for a better future. They have hope on their side. They are living ‘within’ the story of life, but unable to make an impact on it.

The adult hero does things out of necessity. He or she must make sacrifices for others, for the wider good. They may have to take care of ‘children’, or ‘older adults’. They must look beyond their generation. They are resilient and resourceful. They must face up to the challenges of reality, and have the power to change the story of life that goes on around them.

The older age of storyteller ruminates on the past. They are armed with greater knowledge and hindsight: their experience transcends generations. They know that time is running out. Their story is one of sharing wisdom, sharing the nuanced perspective that time has given them. Like the youth, they are not able to make an impact on the world. They are non-participatory observers. They are no longer in the story of life, but at the very edge of it, recollecting events that have happened, conscious of their own mortality.

The film Stand by Me combines pre-adult characters (who live in the moment) with the hindsight of an adult narrator. The innocence and naivety of youth is contrasted to the reflective wisdom of the adult narrator. Language can also be used to define the storyteller’s viewpoint. The use of a first person point of view, written in the present tense, often imbues the subject with the immediacy of a youthful viewpoint. The third person viewpoint, written in the past tense, gives the narrative the rumination quality of an older, wiser person, looking back.

Writers may choose to subvert these expectations. The ‘wise child’ character is a child who, by some weird magic, or surreal whim, possesses the wisdom of an older adult. They may have the gift of foresight, or be able to predict the future. An innocent looking child may possess supernatural or satanic powers that threatens others. Or, the adults may have regressed into childlike beings, like the pampered humans living in the orbiting spaceship in Wall-E, or the passive Eloi tribe in the novel, The Time Machine.

Stories can, and often do, incorporate all three viewpoints within a single story. The hero undergoes a transformative journey: from childish innocence, through real-world experience, into the reflective wisdom of old age. The three ages can be used metaphorically, as a character survives a challenge or dilemma: initially being taken by surprise (a childlike naivety, confusion), facing the problem (pragmatically, like an adult), becoming wise through gained experience (a newfound knowledge, wisdom, a redemptive understanding).

Understanding storytelling through the ‘three ages’ analogy is not a ‘rule’ – it’s simply a way of understanding what a storyteller has to play with, and potentially what they can subvert. Youngsters work their way into adulthood. What if adults try to regress back into their childhood? Adults try to develop the wisdom of an older person. What if they deny their responsibilities? What if they refuse to be ‘old’? Older adults look back, yearning for the apparent simplicity of youth (Citizen Kane). They remember a time when they were more active, participatory, adults at the peak of their powers. Adults feel more capable than children, but fear the physical weakness of older age, of losing their power, of becoming observers.

Society has its deep rooted expectations and prejudices. An adult is rarely respected if they shirk adult responsibilities and live like a teenager. Even less if they act like a child. Children desire to make an impact in the world, so that they can earn their self-respect, and the respect of others. Old people tell stories to celebrate the fact that they were once young and foolish, handsome and brave. Once upon a time they were important and had power. Adults remind children and old people that they are in charge, they are the ones making things happen.

2018–09–16


The ‘other’

In storytelling the ‘I’, ‘me’ (plus the reader, or audience) usually empathises with ‘we’ and ‘us’ against ‘them’. Who are ‘they’? They are the ‘other’.

In the TV series Lost ‘The Others’ (who were literally known by that name) appeared to be a mysterious and violent group living on the other side of the island. They were an unknown quantity, frightening, mysterious. The characters we knew (the survivors of the aeroplane crash) were unable to work out what motivated ‘The Others’, and why they were acting hostile. It was later revealed that they were not what they seemed to be, they were a beneficial force. And yet, the survivors had formed a social group and a social identity, which ‘they’ did not belong to. They viewed ‘The Others’ as fundamentally different. Their newly formed group bonds had created an environment where anyone else was perceived to be an outsider. A threat. In constructing ‘we’ and ‘us’ they had, by necessity, created a mutually exclusive group and projected their fears onto ‘The Others’. Group identities have fascistic tendencies, but it’s impossible to think about people without societies and cultures. After all, we are social creatures. Where there is ‘us’ there will always be a ‘them’. Stories always have ‘us’ the hero, the characters ‘we’ (the audience) empathise with against the ‘baddies’, the monsters, the enemy. Imagine a story without a frightening antagonist. Where’s the drama? ‘We’ need the ‘others’ to make us feel like ‘us’.

The ‘other’ can take many forms in storytelling. Usually we know a lot more about ‘us’ and ‘we’, and a lot less about ‘them’. Also, the other is likely to be a bad actor (manipulative, cheating, treacherous, a spy, a criminal, a pervert, a murderer, etc). Therefore ‘we’ struggle to empathise with ‘them’. We identify with the integrity, decency and vulnerability of ‘us’ and we’. We fear the perceived threat that ‘they’ possess. Whoever they are: they are dangerous.

Who are the others?

They are a threat to decency and normal behaviour. They may be an identified the enemy, we may be at war with them. They may appear from another planet, from outer space, or have swum out of a black lagoon. The might look weird — or they could appear just like us. In many McCarthy era Hollywood films they are communists. They look and act like us, but they are traitors, imposters, spies. In The Thing the alien entity can mimic the human form; it’s almost impossible to know who is human and who is a monster. Count Orlok in Noferatu is the monstrous other, a lusting, blood-sucking vampire, followed around by a plague of rats. Horror is all about ‘us’ (human) and ‘it’ (inhuman): the thing, the beast, the machine.

The fear of the other is the fear of being overwhelmed, of being taken over, subsumed. We are afraid of them because we worry that they might wipe us out. Even if the threat is not existential, they are dangerous enough to threaten our lifestyle, to steal our prosperity, or to become a burden.

‘They’ will always be a problem.

In Aliens the ‘other’ is a violent, monster from another world. It will lay its eggs in us, hunt us down, kill any remaining people. Its threat to ‘us’ is at the extinction level. It’s a severe threat. The ‘enemy’ is another severe threat. In war films the enemy want to enforce their lies and injustice on us. To destroy our way of life and our belief systems.

The ‘other’ can also be the mechanisms of state repression. In storytelling, anything that reduces ‘personal freedom’, individuality, and free expression becomes the ‘other’ — the enemy of humanity. Whatever the ‘other’ is, ‘we’ are always right and ‘the other’ is always wrong. We identity with ‘us’ — we are a tribe. They are another tribe, if we allow them to have a label. They may only be known by a derogatory nickname.

The ‘other’ can be the people we live next-door to, our neighbours. They may come from a different class to us, speak differently, or have a different culture. In The ’Burbs and ‘Rosemary’s Baby ‘we’ (the protagonist and the audience) believe that they are part of a satanic cult; in Artlington Road that they are terrorists; in Pacific Heights they are a psychopath; and in Rear Window they’re a murderer.

The ‘other’ can mean different things in different stories. For Joseph Garcin in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit, ‘hell is other people.’ What Garcin means is that our preoccupation with worrying about what other people think of us limits our own freedom. We objectify ourselves by seeking their approval. The ‘other’ can, it seems, exist within ‘us’.

Stories can deliberately subvert the audience’s perception of the ‘other’. There’s a whole slew of unreliable narrators, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or Mort Rainey in Secret Window. While in Metamorphosis (an early ‘body shock’ horror) the central character is forced to rethink his relationship with his own body. In Space Precinct and Alien Nation alien cops work alongside their human colleagues. In American Psycho, an outwardly successful business executive turns out to be crazy. And, in Amistad we learn that the ‘other’ is ‘us’; we are one and the same thing — humans.

2018–08–30


The ‘decisive moment’ in storytelling

Images à la Sauvette (Images on the Run) was published in France in 1952. Later English language editions were titled The Decisive Moment. The preface to the publication, a collection of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, describes the ‘decisive moment’ as a moment when the elements of photography (film speed, exposure, focus, etc) combine with a favourable event occurring in front of the lens – the result is a photograph that ‘works’ in every sense. By luck, and the skill the photographer, a point in time is captured: one that defines the fullest artistic expression of its potential. Instead of being a mere image, the elements work together to tell a photographic story.

The photograph Derrière la Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, France, 1932, for example, personifies anticipation. An unexciting image comes to life as a man leaps across a puddle. Frozen in time, forever in mid-air, the viewer imagines his foot landing in the water with a splash, but it never happens. Instead, because this is a still image, he is permanently stuck there, stuck in space, always about to land, but never landing. In that ‘decisive moment’ everything comes together to tell the story of that moment. A truly photographic moment.

In storytelling the writer chooses when the story begins and ends. He or she chooses the decisive moment. Why is it decisive? Because it is the moment when everything combines to express the story at its fullest significance. This usually means the moment that changes how the characters view the world.

Traditionally stories cover what happened (1) before the event, (2) during the event, and (3) after the event. The hero is set a challenge (the prelude / exposition). He fights the monster (the battle / climax). Finally, he is celebrated as a noble and wise hero and marries the princess (the aftermath / denouement). For dramatic purposes, a story can focus on one of those three elements. It can explore the run up to the battle with the monster, the battle itself, or the aftermath. Paradoxically a story about an event might not include any characters who were there when it happened. For example, the aftermath of an apocalyptic event is entirely focused on the effects of the event — its by-product.

So, stories can attempt to cover the whole event, whatever that is perceived to be (stories are themselves the selected highlights). Or — a section of the event. If one part is covered in detail other parts may be glossed over, hinted at, or ignored completely. For clarity and dramatic ends, writers choose to focus on a particular aspect of a larger sequence of events. These sub-sections of the main story are decisive because they reflect scenarios where a central character experiences a life changing moment.

The run up to the event — the prelude / the exposition — provides a space to explore how things were before a tragedy or celebrated event occurred. Who were the people who made this happen? What caused it? The story can delve into the normality of a world that existed before it was shattered. It can live within the apparent ordinariness that produced an incredible success. Whatever the angle, this is very much an origins and beginnings story – how world was before the attack on Pearl harbour or before 9/11 changed things forever.

A story can take place right bang in middle of an event (‘the battle’ / the climax). It does not seek to rationalise what came before or after. This is often where war films begin, at the heart of the action. Instead of rationalising the event, this kind of story chronicles a character’s endurance, or failing — the exploration never reaching beyond the ‘now’ of existence. Here, in the flux of the moment, there is no time to reflect.

Lastly, the aftermath story. This is where the event has already happened. It’s a rumination story that makes sense of the past. It could be an end of an era story (post-colonial, the end of a character’s life, or a relationship). Citizen Kane examines a newspaper mogul’s life. The rumination may never resolve the unanswered questions. They may remain an enigma. In The Third Man Holly Martins attempts to understand who Harry Lime really was. But, to do this, he must also understand himself, and realise who he is.

The writer chooses which moment to focus on, and expand in detail. The prelude. The flux. The aftermath. And, most importantly, how that decisive sub-story affects the characters who are caught up within it. All of this comes in context of the overarching main event. In the prelude story, if it has a historical basis, we know what the future holds (unlike the characters). In the action-packed climax story there is no time for making sense of what happens. We are locked in the moment. We may or may not know what happens in the wider context. In an aftermath story like Stand by Me, we look back on what happened with the main character — rationalising and making sense of what took place.

In crafting these sub-stories or decisive moments, they are themselves reimagined as exposition, climax, and denouement. And standalone films (complete stories) are expanded on into sequels (what came after) and prequels (what came before). While the traditional narrative works as a linear sequence, many contemporary stories like The Thin Red Line or Memento jump about in time, deliberately confusing the boundaries between the flux, the action, the ever-present ‘now’ — and memories of the past, to create a kind of experiential 4th dimension.

2018–08–28


‘Get Out’

In the 2017 film Get Out Rose (who is White) invites Chris (her Black boyfriend) to visit her parents at their country home. The trip involves an ominous drive through the countryside (which includes the death of a deer when it runs into their car). The road trip acts as a buffer zone separating the familiar city environment from the creepy weirdness surrounding Rose’s family and their home. Like Southern Comfort strange ‘otherness’ lurks just around the corner, within your own national boundaries. Rose’s brother plays the banjo on the doorstep, echoing the banjo-playing redneck child in Deliverance. As with other horror films, like The Hills Have Eyes and Race With the Devil, strange and frightening things happen in rural backwaters. These are places where normal rules do not apply. The journey takes the central character from the world we know into a world that is alien. Like the twisting mountain road in The Shining it makes it far from trivial to simply get up and leave the new environment once problems begin to emerge. This is exacerbated by poor mobile phone coverage and battery issues in Get Out and the extreme winter conditions in The Shining.

There are other themes at work here: the Black male invited by his White girlfriend to visit her parent’s. This has immediate echoes of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Get Out uses this point of tension, and race politics, to explore the awkwardness of meeting a partner’s parents – a universal fear used here to set the tone for a horror story. This forces the audience to question if the strangeness Chris faces is: racism, his paranoia, or something else. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner the visit to the parents provides a context for social commentary, while in Meet the Parents it provides a comic situation.

Once at the house, Chris witnesses the bizarre behaviour of the Black maid and the Black groundsman. Their unsettling conformity and their culturally White middle-class behaviour sets off warnings in Chris’ mind. There are hints here of a dark family secret, like the family abuse featured in Feston, the surrogate robots from The Stepford Wives (1972), or brainwashing and forced, indentured labour.

The strangeness hints at the possibility of a conspiracy. This places the story within another thematic framework: the conspiracy story. When Chris explains to Rose about the unusual behaviour of the Black housekeeper and the Black groundsman, he comes across as paranoid. This is further heightened by his friend, whose outlandish claim is that White women keep Black men as sex slaves. Within the conspiracy story narrative these insinuations appear absurd or crazy, but some aspect of them eventually turns out to be true.

The penultimate reference point, or influence, is the sci-fi element to the story (a medical conspiracy story along the lines of Coma). Without wishing to spoil the plot, this phase of the story is glossed over at speed, probably because it doesn’t make much sense when analysed.

Finally, the story goes into escape mode; the breakout story. Here the audience witnesses Chris’ desperate escape from incarceration. He is in a kind of underground hell, an Inferno, striving to get back to the surface, back to the normal world. This hellish place could be the den of freaks, like the psychotic family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974); the monstrous ‘other’ (like Rose’s family they also live in a rural backwater and view outsiders without ethical or moral consideration). Or, an escape from a prison or prisoner of war camp.

The Inferno, a journey into hell followed by an attempt to escape from it, provides a staple plot structure for the horror genre. Unsuspecting victims become ensnared in a hellish other world, and attempt to free themselves from it.

Get Out plays with audience expectations, switching between genres, building and subverting one trope after another, creating a series of plot twists and turns. This disorientates the audience: what point of reference should we be using to make sense of and judge this story?

Unfortunately, once the full scale of the family’s plan is revealed Get Out feels much less creepy and frightening. And while the ending provides a cathartic resolution, it reverts to self-knowing cliché in order to achieve it.

2018–08–22


Adaptations: turning words into film

Stephen King’s novel The Shining is an efficient horror. A bestseller. Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation is a work of art. They are different interpretations of the same story. Stephen King famously hated the film. But, for me, it is The Shining. That’s the thing with adaptations: sometimes they improve, sometimes they destroy. They work, or they don’t work.

Norwegian Wood, to my mind is a successful novel, but the film does not work. It goes nowhere. Slowly. And Silk, a favourite novella of mine, resulted in a cinematic non-experience. It’s difficult to work out why the films were disappointing. Maybe they were just bad films with bad scripts and lacklustre performances?

Somewhere during the conversion process the stories lost the magic of the language. The words. The novel Norwegian Wood lost the voice of the central character, his wistful melancholic otherness. The novella Silk lost the tone of its beautiful minimalist language (itself reminiscent of Japanese literature). The magic of the words did not translate adequately into cinematic language.

A critical thing about novels is that we get to experience the inner world of the main character, or a whole bunch of characters. It’s a very intimate, subtle, rich experience. In film this inner narrative is conveyed through the voice over. It introduces the main character, sets the scene, and the tone. The opening voiceover in Blade Runner is often panned by critics. I actually like it. Whatever you think, you would probably agree that it is certainly functional. Voiceover introductions are invariably seen as dumbing down, explaining the story to a mainstream audience. The Beach is another example where a preliminary voiceover sets the scene, and the main character’s role as a cool, detached observer. The voiceover helps to translate a literary fiction bestseller into a cinematic hit.

Ready Player One is a great example of a novel that breaks the rules. It takes place through the internal dialogue of the main character. It’s almost all explanation (and quite detailed explanation at that). The narrator literally explains the story to the reader. The protagonist tells us how things appear to him: a nerd explaining the nuances of his world. It works because the narrative style reflects the protagonist unique world view. The film of Ready Player One cuts out much that makes the story and the central character endearing. This is done in favour of set-piece action sequences. The novel provides a richer experience that makes more sense, while the film is a sequence of chases and fights with much less charm. The screenplay breaks the novel’s story, sacrificing its sophistication for CGI effects. But the decision paid off and the film was a huge success.

In a weird reversal of the film adaptation process, films and TV series often become vehicles for merchandising. This means T-shirts, posters, action figures, lunch boxes — and books. Novelisations of film and TV series tend to stick closely to the screenplay. This is probably the only thing the writer can use because the film or TV series is still in production. These are books for people who want to ‘read the film’ as it were. They might be better off reading the film script. But, while these works are derivative they can add an extra dimension, filling in some of the gaps, letting us see inside a character’s mind, casting more light on their backstory or deeper motivations. The novelisation of Seven by Anthony Bruno, for example, proficiently retells the story, using the film script as its original source. It’s an effective thriller in its own right.

The ‘show don’t tell’ minimalism of the book version of The Graduate reveals information through dialogue. The modern, paired-down writing style reads like a screenplay. The narrative is matter-of-fact, efficient, but lacks the charm and quirkiness of the film. The novel’s language doesn’t have a sense of individual personality. Sections of the screenplay are almost copied directly from the novel, and although they are very similar, one completely resonates, while the other fails to convince.

There’s only so much a film can do in 90 minutes. There’s a lot more space in an 80,000 word novel. The trick is what an adaptation retains and what it throws out. What it emphasises and what it dismisses — how much simplification the story is put through. The Beach, Silk, Ready Player One, are simplifications of an already highly crafted storytelling experience.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series of novels works within the crime genre. Child is an effective storyteller who uses accessible language. Consequentially his books are easy to read and for many readers they’re ‘addictive’. It’s the accessibility and the simplification that makes them bestseller material. Of course, it’s other things as well: great characters, mystery, and exciting action based plots. The film adaptation of Lee Child’s One Shot into the film Jack Reacher builds on the novel but it also improves on it by tidying up the plot, and honing the essence of the story to its essentials. The result is a more satisfying experience, one that feels more complete.

Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm is another example of a film that turns a novel (in this case a ‘difficult’ work of literary fiction) into a more coherent cinematic story. It makes the source material look confused, like a rough ‘sketch’. How is this achieved? Through a masterful screenplay by James Schamus and great use of cinematic language; wonderful visuals and a resonant film score.

Great adaptations tend to retain the essence of what makes the original engaging, often something within the language of words and sentences, while moving the story forward to work within the language of images and sounds to create a distinctively new work of art.

2018–07–26


From ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘Demon Seed’

In Demon Seed (1977), obsessive scientist, Alex Harris, leads the team that created Proteus IV, a robot with sentient AI. The machine wants more than self-awareness. It wants to be evolve beyond metal and circuitry. It wants to be human — to feel what it means to be alive.

The name Proteus IV references the Ancient Greek god Proteus, who was both all-knowing and a shape-shifter. (Proteus was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, book IV.) Like the monster in Frankenstein, Proteus IV quickly learns that ‘he’ (the robot speaks with a male voice) is his own master. He seeks to be more than just a servant of scientific research. He desires a human form with a human identity. The machine’s self-awareness brings both incredible problem solving skills — and a burning survival instinct. Unlike the creature in Frankenstein who is given ‘life’ by his ‘master’, Proteus IV creates it for himself.

To become human, Proteus IV imprisons Susan Harris. (She’s a child psychologist and the wife of the research scientist leading the Proteus IV project.) The robot sexually assaults her, stealing her eggs and DNA to create a new AI/human hybrid.

In the novel Frankenstein the ‘monster’ is described as an evil ‘creature’. Through the language alone it’s clear that he’s a force for bad. The monster is referred to as an ‘abomination’, a ‘fiend’, and a ‘demon’. This notion operates within a religious framework. One where only God is supposed to create life. Anything else, not created by God, must therefore be intrinsically evil.

The monster even describes himself as a ‘fallen angel’. In other words: Lucifer. Rejected by humanity because of his terrifying appearance, the monster reacts with bitterness, and resorts to violence. He is conscious of his otherness, of his disfigurement, much like the characters in Freaks or John Merrick in The Elephant Man.

Disfigurement is often used in storytelling as a way of representing an evil personality, externally. The violent monster looks like a mutation or a half-beast — it doesn’t resemble an attractive, healthy, ‘normal’ person who might grace the covers of Vanity Fair or GQ. When not used to express a character’s darkness, disfigurement represents their inner turmoil, for example David Aames in Vanilla Sky. This stereotype of disfigurement runs contrary to much contemporary thinking where disability and physical disfigurement is not viewed as ‘otherness’, but as people who are whole in themselves, as humans. They are not monstrous or embarrassing. They are people who deserve to be socially included and treated with dignity.

Nonetheless, the stereotype of violent behaviour being linked to disfigurement persists in horror and other genres, including the James Bond stories like Dr No. Alternatively, stories like The Shape of Water subvert the normalcy by having a monstrous looking non-human character who resembles the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon. He is, however, decent and heroic. The devil is the ultimate evil villain and he is traditionally represented as a hideously monstrous beast with horns and goat-eyes.

Frankenstein’s monster is alone and wants to belong. But he is rejected (because of his horrific appearance) and thus forced into the role of ‘the other’. The monster can also be interpreted as a rebellious teenager fighting a self-obsessed, weak parent. The graphic novel Black Hole explores identity and belonging when teenagers become genetically mutated and turn into ‘monsters’. Ashamed and confused they flee into the forest to escape the normalcy of small town society.

Frankenstein attempts to rectify his ‘mistake’ by reconciling himself with his creation. Traumatised by the experience, and terrified of the creature, he suffers a mental breakdown. His breakthrough creation turns out to be an affliction.

The monster in both stories is a metaphor for artistic and scientific creation. Once a work is completed it literally takes on a life of its own. In the case of the novel Frankenstein, it might be divisive and contentious (written by a women at a time when women were supposed to occupy themselves with acceptably feminine pursuits). And, once out in the open, an artist’s or scientist’s work reflects well, or badly, on the author. It will be judged by the public.

Mary Shelly had experienced personal trauma when she lost her premature baby. The father (who was allegedly having an affair with her step sister) was married to another women (who later committed suicide). The story of the monster can be interpreted as a metaphor for the horror of her own experience.

Like Frankenstein’s creature, Proteus IV is also a monster. He is psychopathic, like Hector, the demented robot in Saturn 3 (from a script that’s, incidentally, written by Martin Amis). While Frankenstein’s monster is tormented, robot-monsters tend to be impervious to the pain they cause. When Proteus IV is reborn as an attractive, healthy, ‘normal’ human child, it seems like he may have transcended his evil, until he says, ‘I’m alive’ in his creepy robot voice. The birth of this devil-child recalls Rosemary’s Baby.

White the technology in Demon Seed is of its time (nothing dates quite as fast as technology and fashion). It’s sufficiently menacing and creepy to feel scary (although at times it lapses into the comical). Both stories shy away from too much detail and fudge the issue by keeping things sufficiently vague.

Susan Harris is imprisoned in her own home, a highly automated dwelling (that echoes Buster Keaton’s The Electric House from 1922). This is a familiar scenario. An automated environment that’s either comically out of control, or part of a terrifying dystopia. In THX 1138 the system is controlled by a computer system and creepy robot policemen. Efficiency and automation have been taken to a point where everything becomes absurdly bureaucratic and dysfunctional.

Proteus IV’s world is authoritarian and violent. Susan’s husband, Alex, is blinded by his obsession with scientific research, and his dispassionate rationalism. He ignores Susan’s trauma, seeing the whole thing as a new epoch in evolution.

Her torturous experience feels voyeuristic, bordering on the juvenile-absurdity of Saw. Her weak role, that of a passive victim, contrasts with Ripley in Alien, who is able to see what needs to be done to stop the monster, and acts to make this happen.

Demon Seed’s has a deliberately shocking ending. The machine-monster is reborn as a monstrous machine…that turns out to be an angelic looking child…who turns out to have the same evil mind as the original robot.

Frankenstein’s monster loses: Proteus IV wins. His psychopathic behaviour is rewarded when he is gains human life. The monster-machine (which sounds vaguely like Kraftwerkian terminology) gets what he wants, to shape-shift, to shed his metallic form for a human body. The reveal at the end aims to mimic the shock of Don’t Look Now. And, if the story didn’t end here it would turn into a version of The Omen.

What are these stories about?

They are stories as a warning rather than a celebration, or a celebration that turns into a warning. They are about technology running amok. They are tragedies. They are stories about a world out of balance, out of control. A world where technology promises amazing potential — but brings unforeseen problems. A dream turns into a nightmare.

While horror will always have an element of cheap thrills, beyond the story’s set-up Demon Seed quickly eschews the reflectively intelligent for the voyeurism of pulp horror. It takes the satanic monster, out of the Gothic novel, retaining the same well-meaning but obsessed scientist character (who provides a contextual emotional and ethical framework).

Instead of having a monster made from flesh, Proteus IV is made from software and computer controlled hardware. The monsters in both of these stories want to be accepted as human. Whereas Frankenstein’s creature is lost, inept and ultimately self-destructive, Proteus IV is frightening because of his absolute ability to succeed.

2018–07–08


‘Blade Runner 2049’

Continuing the story of 1984’s original Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 sees officer ‘K’ — a new model of obedient ‘replicant’ — retire an old style military ‘replicant’ working at a protein farm. ‘K’ inadvertently stumbles across a mystery that sheds new light on the ‘replicants’ as a species.

The story deals with typically Philip K Dick themes around reality and simulation. Real memories versus implanted memories. The general idea being: if one experiences a fake memory as if it’s real, then is it not real for that person?

To highlight this paradox, Officer ‘K’ has a holographic girlfriend, a simulation of a woman based on AI created by the same company that manufacturers the ‘replicants’. She cooks him a visually alluring steak and chips, which he can’t eat because it’s a hologram. Instead it’s superimposed over his actual meal, a humdrum bowl of protein.

The question Officer ‘K’ faces is one of identity, of knowing who he is, deciphering the real ‘him’ from the implanted memories. ‘K’ lives an isolated existence, hated by human work colleagues, despised by the humans in his apartment block, and shunned by other ‘replicants’ because he kills his own. His holographic girlfriend provides a meagre escape from the harsh reality of his world. His implanted memories help him to rationalise the world, form his identity, and provide the stable base that underpins his compliant, work-orientated personality.

The story explores the idea that identity is not based on memories (real or implanted) but on the personal choice. We are what we do proactively, in our lives. Officer ‘K’ begins to follow in the path of the saviour type character like Neo from The Matrix, or Sonny in I, Robot. The story begins with ‘K’ unaware of his significance, but his greater purpose turns out to be a false assumption. This deviation from the journey of the archetypal saviour is both disappointing for him and the audience.

Storytellers choose what to put in and what to leave out. What to focus on and what to downplay. How the implanted memories work is a minefield that’s avoided, as is the manufacture of the ‘replicants’.

In the scene near the end where ‘K’ rests on the steps of a building with the snow coming down, the film poetically changes from one character and scene to another. In an edit, based around two characters watching snow fall on their hands, we move from the story we have experienced with ‘K’ to the promise of the story to come. The director takes us where he wants the focus to be. The problem here is that we have experienced ‘K’s’ story only to discover at the end that it’s not his story. The audience is left with two characters at the finale — they are what the film is really about — but we’ve spent little time with them, which feels unsatisfying.

Officer ‘K’ is built to obey, and yet he chooses to go against his ‘design’. The process is not fully explored but, his volition, peer pressure, and the mopped-up blood outside the interrogation test cells points to a wider issue with ‘replicants’ than the Wallace Corporation cares to admit. But the film glosses over this and we never have enough experience of the ‘replicants’ dissatisfaction to empathise with them. Without a display of dissatisfaction on-screen they feel like machines.

One might argue, the way the story is setup, to ensure the narrative’s flow, has precluded our ability to empathise fully with ‘K’. We should be rooting for ‘K’ and the ‘replicants’, but we never truly experience their injustice. We don’t get to feel their anger as we do in Westword (2016) or even I, Robot. The human characters are just as one dimensional; the non-entity of ‘K’s’ plastic manager who seems weirdly unmoved when her hand is crushed in glass, and Niander Wallace, the predictably weird-genius, half-fused with body implants, who’s pragmatic-realism never makes him truly good, or frightening enough. Perhaps there’s too much subtlety here, or in an effort to show that humans are similar to ‘replicants’, the personality has drained out of all the characters?

The stunning cinematography and landscapes conjure up both high-tech and eco-fail-scapes. They create atmosphere and distract the viewer from the thin plot-line and the lack of character development. For a story about big issues, like identity and humanity, low budget films like Automata say more. Blade Runner 2019 ultimately feels stylishly superficial, a story demanding more depth.

2018–03–07


‘Altered Carbon’

The Neo-Noir science fiction thriller Altered Carbon (Season 1, 2018) weaves a story about memory and identity. In this future people have a new kind of mind-body relationship.

This situation has been made possible by technology allowing the storage of the mind and memory using special chips, which can be inserted into different bodies or ‘sleeves’. The ultra-rich own multiple cloned sleeves of themselves and have their ‘mind’ chip backed up, which effectively gives them everlasting life.

But, there’s a downside. These immortals or ‘Meths’ are all-powerful; they dominate business, politics and society and this has led to a dystopia of inequality and corruption.

In enters Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-terrorist who fought against the people developing the new technology, and lost. After a couple of centuries ‘on ice’ he’s brought back to life in a new sleeve to investigate the murder of a ‘Meth’ who’s hoping to find out who killed him. The character who wakes up from a long sleep is a classic fantasy / sci-fi device that takes the protagonist from our world into the future. In Rip Van Winkle (1819) the central character goes to sleep and wakes up in the future. In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) Buck wakes up from suspended animation.

Tonally, Altered Carbon is unabashed pulp fiction with a strong dose of Philip K. Dick. Its over-the-top approach feels enjoyably trashy, but the production values, the quality of the writing and acting are anything but that. There’s something about its approach to the subject that’s reminiscent of a 1980s movie, like Terminator, or a 1990s film like Total Recall. There’s also a manga and graphic novel influence: the over-the-top treatment of some of the torture and sex scenes, and Takeshi’s pink unicorn backpack.

Visually, the film references Blade Runner (the megalopolis), and Metropolis (The ‘Meth’s’ tower rises above the clouds, above the pollution like the Architect’s skyscraper in Metropolis. The ‘Meths’ fantasy architecture is fitted out with every luxury and includes manicured gardens).

Altered Carbon is a true Neo Noir, or cyberpunk story, the Raven Hotel, which provides Takeshi’s base, with its AI manager Poe, personifies techno-goth.

Season 1 of Altered Carbon features two main stories; one of them providing the backstory to the other. As the story unravels, we learn that both are heavily interrelated. And like all Neo Noir there is a femme fatale.

The theme of characters living their lives through avatars was explored in Surrogates, which uses them as a metaphor for not living our real life but living through a virtual experience. It’s an obvious metaphor for the internet and virtual reality. The technology in Altered Carbon is much more sophisticated and plays with the confusion of identity, the classic mind-body problem, and combines it with the technology’s ability to grant the rich the power to escape death, and consequentially taking away the human fear of death. The message is clear: no one is meant to live forever.

2018–02–16


‘Rosemary’s Baby’

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is an odd film. Having just watched the Seventies classic, Straw Dogs, I was struck by the similarities between the two. Both feature a weak husband, a beautiful wife (struggling to be taken seriously), a claustrophobic and closed community with its own rules, fashionably experimental (for the times) camerawork, weird shooting angles, and some questionable sexual politics.

It’s possible to interpret Rosemary’s Baby as a straightforward warning story, a horror about devil worshippers and peer pressure. Some of the psychological, surrealist sequences are very Hitchcockian. It also works as a black comedy about the establishment, and the desperation to succeed at any price. Guy, Rosemary’s husband, will do anything to turn around his failing acting career.

The story paints the establishment as a grotesque elite, personified by the creepy old couple Minnie and Roman. (Roman’s name is unchanged from the novel.) Roman Polanski wanted these parts played by old Hollywood stars, making the story a kind of Sunset Boulevard: The Dark Side. As in Society, and They Live the establishment is controlled by a conniving self-perpetuating clique.

Most of the film takes place in two cramped apartments. The environments feel theatrical, almost like a stage set. The claustrophobic nature of the interiors intensifies the close proximity of the characters. Wide-angle lenses, extreme close ups, harsh lighting, and shots pointing up at the characters from the floor maintains the unsettling atmosphere.

Like Straw Dogs, Rosemary’s Baby includes some surprising sexual politics. Rosemary’s husband, Guy, makes a pact with a Minnie and Roman (Satanists), drugging his wife and arranging for her to be raped by Satan. In return Minnie and Roman see to it that Guy’s failed acting career is transformed into a success story. It goes beyond a mere critical take on the Hollywood system into a horror story about betrayal. One that incorporates a plot twist worthy of The Twilight Zone.

The creepiness of Minnie and Roman and the matter-of-fact treatment of Rosemary — as she is deceived, manipulated and abused — is disconcerting. Unlike Straw Dogs where the perpetrators of injustice are all killed (in extremely violent circumstances), in Rosemary’s Baby the forces of evil (literally) get away with it. Their world view is enforced, and Rosemary finally gives in and accepts defeat. Mia Farrow’s Twiggy-like waif-ness accentuates her vulnerability, while Guy’s callousness, his calculating poker-face contrasts with Rosemary’s psychological nightmare. Her inability to expose the conspiracy surrounding her, and her husband’s calm compliance with Minnie and Roman gives the story its shocking ending.

While not the first Hollywood film to deal with the occult, unlike films like The Seventh Victim (1943), Rosemary’s Baby was a commercial success, which sparked the mainstream adoption of the occult horror film sub-genre: Race with the Devil, The Shining, The Devil’s Advocate, The Omen, The Exorcist, Angel Heart, The Blair Witch Project, and *Eyes Wide Shut, and, along with The Devil Rides Out, the rise of the 1970s occult horror B-movie.

2018–02–10


‘Straw Dogs’

David Sumner, the main character in Straw Dogs (1971), comes across as a kind of Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate, (both characters are played by Dustin Hoffman), who’s broken up with Elaine and moved to a small village in Cornwall with his new English girlfriend. He’s the same, mild-mannered, middle-class, preppy city boy — forced into contact with brutish, working-class men from the local English village.

The rural community in Straw Dogs has a thematic similarity to the one depicted in Deliverance; a motley group of perverts, criminals, and weirdos. The village is a close-knit, alien place where everyone knows everyone, where sexual baseness, and violence are normal.

This freakish, impoverished, uneducated and closed-off community provides the same challenge that city protagonist’s face in other rural backwaters, like the ones portrayed in Southern Comfort, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Wicker Man. The locals have a different notion of what it means to be civilised to the protagonist, and us (the audience).

In moving to the countryside, the protagonist leaves behind his or her support network. There’s a feeling of isolation, paranoia and being overwhelmed by savage forces. Like Jack in The Shining, David Sumner only wants one thing; enough peace and quiet to write his book.

The house and village take on a threatening aura, a weirdly charged psychological environment, much like the hotel in The Shining. In both stories we’re tipped that that something terrible will happen. In The Shining we know that the previous caretaker went insane. In Straw Dogs David Sumner has a Chekhovian deer trap placed over the fireplace. (If you make a point of putting a gun over the fireplace… It’s going to get used in the story.)

As the tension and threats increase, David Sumner loses his liberal demeanour, and denial that anything untoward might happen. Like the boys in Lord of the Flies, he reverts back to his basic survival instincts, shedding his polite middle-class demeanour to endorse violence against those who threaten him and the people he’s responsible for.

The attack on the farm house is a retelling of the Old American Western siege story, like The Alamo (which also influenced films like Assault on Precinct 13). The brutal ‘baddies’ (their humanity further suppressed by alcohol) surround the building and attempt to enter and kill those inside.

The film is probably best known for its depiction of violence and a disturbing rape scene. It was classified as a ‘video nasty’, and unavailable for many years. The rape scene is disturbing because it lingers excessively, taking up an unnecessary amount of on-screen time, and it has ambiguous moments where the sex is non-consensual, yet Amy appears to take pleasure from it.

Amy’s sexuality is fraught with issues from the first shot of her (a close up of her breasts in a tight sweater). Her short skirts and tight sweater attracts the ‘wrong’ kind of attention from the local men. She’s an attractive woman, presented as a sexual trophy, an object of desire. This is accentuated by the camerawork, which focuses on her body (from the viewpoint of men mentally undressing her), but it also appears to delight in it. Amy believes that she can dress how she chooses without having to be stared at. She comments that the men might as well ‘lick’ her body the way they’re looking at her, something she’s clearly unhappy about. Her husband, preoccupied with his own problems, and unable to relate to the locals, advises her to dress more modestly.

Straw Dogs is a story of a disintegrating relationship, of mutual blame, and personal alienation in an unfamiliar environment, a place where the locals have different rules. David Sumner feels threatened that the local men know about his wife’s past life, before he met her (this is the same village that she comes from). The film was released in 1971, the year that A Clockwork Orange (which also explores violence and rape), Dirty Harry and The French Connection were released. These films feature male protagonists who behave in a fascist-like manner, arguably wielding unnecessary force. There’s a feeling that disempowerment has caused an enthusiasm for street-justice and revenge vigilantism, a celebration of punishment that personifies Death Wish and Dirty Harry. Unlike the gratuitous offensiveness of The Wild Bunch, the same vibe that Quinten Tarantino later picked up on in Pulp Fiction, Straw Dogs seems more considered and open to interpretation.

Is Straw Dogs a conservative story that celebrates a feminised anti-hero (weak and passive) turning into an all-male hero (strong and active); a metaphor for the replacement of the liberal 1960s with reassuringly traditional values, and patriarchal machismo? Or, is it a story about a woman who feels free to express her sexuality in the way she dresses and behaves, and her innocent exuberance is misinterpreted (by the locals, and her husband), which eventually results in abusive violence against her?

While this is debatable, it does offer enough depth, well observed detail and richness to go beyond the comic-book hero of Dirty Harry and the confused pretentiousness of A Clockwork Orange.

2018–02–02


‘Last Year in Marienbad’

The film opens with a point of view camera sequence revealing a sumptuous Baroque hotel interior, filmed in high contrast black and white. Eerie, warbling organ music plays, and the monotone voice of the narrator speaking:

I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors…

What unfolds is a play within a play, a spookily atmospheric hall of mirrors, an aesthetic feast, and an intellection mind game. An unnamed male protagonist attempts to convince a woman of their love affair a year ago in Marienbad, a relationship that either: never happened, that she can’t remember, or she refuses to accept. There’s a love/power triangle with another man, who could be another lover, her husband, or the symbolic representation of Death.

The story is deliberately ambiguous with multiple interpretations possible. The interior of the ornate hotel works as a metaphor for the brain/mind. The interactions of its guests fulfilling a kind of living consciousness/unconsciousness. The lavish hotel interiors and the ornate symmetry of the garden provide a surreal, poetic dreamscape, a place where imagination and reality merge. It’s a space where absolute certainty is not possible.

The film has a striking, high contrast, black and white aesthetic. A style later employed by art photographers like Ralph Gibson. The cinematography, especially the composition is remarkable: gothic-like darkness, twilight stillness, the surrealism echoing Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Delvaux’s weird and erotically charged nightscapes, the strange theatricality of Balthus, and Edvard Munch’s dance of death.

If the hotel is a metaphor for the mind, a closed circulatory world, it also functions as purgatory, or the afterlife. This follows in the tradition of the Greek myth of Orpheus who travels to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead. Similarly, the protagonist in Last Year in Marienbad (1961) attempts to persuade his lover to come back to him (and return to life) by reminding her of their love affair. The other man in this love tussle, Death, wants to keep her in the hotel, in limbo. Like the chess playing figure of Death in The Seventh Seal (1957), no one expects to beat him in a game, because he always wins. Here, Death has his own unique game, a game of cards.

The dreamscape of Last Year in Marienbad is detached from the world. The environment is glossy and luxurious, but impersonal. The formality, extreme symmetry, and overblown extravagance creates a sense of alienated anxiety. The magnificence of the hotel accentuates the surface with its superficial mirrors and reflections. The characters echo this by showing little depth and remaining unchanged as the story progresses. The atmosphere is one of artifice. The characters appear emotionally aloof. The tone is intellectual; Duchampian indifference; detached observers; the codified emotional language of hidden and repressed feelings.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the screenplay, is associated with the French ‘new novel’. He complained about ‘the humanist myth of depth’[1] focusing, instead, on factual descriptions of places, buildings, objects, and characters, often within ‘phantom’ environments. Half-dead beings imprisoned by rumination and melancholic reflection. While this sounds intriguing, it leads to a difficult and laborious experience for the reader. In this film the audience is saved by the stunning visuals.

Last Year in Marienbad has been called the first Cubist film, a montage film in the vein of Eisenstein. I’m not convinced about either of these, but it is experimental and challenging, a true art film, possibly the first in the mode of the contemporary ‘Indie’ art film. The actors literally freeze in real time, while the narration continues, time stops, but the narrator’s thoughts, like a play or novel, continue unimpeded. This emphasises the story as a contrived, packaged experience, an intellectual puzzle. It isn’t realistic in the naturalistic sense or pretending to be. It also emphasises the experience of time with the story, as it were, existing ‘outside’ of time.

The story’s openness to interpretation originates from the writer and director having different ideas about the protagonist. The writer, Alain Robbe-Grille, saw the protagonist is an unreliable narrator who’d never met the woman in Marienbad. This makes the central character a deluded stalker and potentially a rapist, and the story a psychological horror. The Director, Alain Resnais (who was given the script to interpret how he wished) plays it as if they had met, resulting in a romantic affirmation of separated lovers becoming reunited. Alain Robbe-Grillet ensured that his version of the story persisted by publishing the text separately. Nevertheless, the result is a film that exudes enigmatic ambiguity, maintaining our interest with stunning cinematography and a unique vision that went on to influence The Shining and Mulholland Drive.

[1] Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror (John Calder, London, 1988) P 15.

2018–01–27


Snow

The world appears ordinary, and then the snow falls. Like a mysteriously wrapped Christo sculpture, everything becomes new again. It’s the same world, but different. Snow, like a work of art, changes how we see things.

Snowfall hides the land, replacing green and muddy browns with pristine white, filling in the dips and hollows. This blanketing effect is sometimes likened to memory, or hidden emotion. Inner reflection plays a crucial role in Snow falling on Cedars, where the central character recalls a past love, and comes to terms with his life. A small town, surrounded by a snow covered forest, and the icy sea — visually represents the human struggle within a harsh landscape, and the protagonist’s feelings of desolation and loss.

A melancholic tone pervades many stories set in snowy environments, as if the snow accentuates a certain sombreness, in the way rainfall acts as a metaphor for sorrow, the thunderstorms foreshadow violent drama. Snow is quieter, slower acting, more personal. The act of walking across snow is a unique experience — distant sounds are hushed by the insulating effects of the snow, while nearby sounds like one’s breath, and the crunch of snow underfoot seem accentuated. Each footstep leaves the physical mark of a person’s presence, a map of where they’ve been. But that poignant physical trace will, in time, disappear, covered by more snow, or by it melting away.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the evil witch casts a spell that turns Narnia into a perpetual winter world, essentially condemning the entire realm into an ongoing state of depression. The emotional resonance of snow, ice and winter is heightened in Misery, when a psychopath ‘takes care’ of an injured man after his car crashes during a blizzard. She keeps him prisoner, all the while maintaining that she is looking after his welfare. The impenetrable winter snow outside accentuates his isolation and disconnect from the rest of the world. Here, snow is associated with melancholy, isolation, and horror. The ‘cabin fever’ in The Hateful Eight forms a crucible for the action, which takes place at a staging post, in the middle of nowhere. The frozen wilderness forces the characters together and makes it impossible for them to escape.

Horror stories work well in winter snowstorms, unidentifiable figures can escape into the blizzard night, and communications can go down leaving people isolated. The outside is transformed into an ever-present menace, a frightening and dangerous alien world. In The Thing scientists defend themselves against a mutating alien life-form, while having to keep alive in the unforgiving Antarctic environment. The cold adds an additional challenge to the hero’s survival. In The Shining, the central character loses his mind and ends up chasing his wife and son around a creepy hotel, and finally outside into the snow. The winter snow provides a resonant horror location; sounds are mysteriously muffled, antagonists and monsters can slip away, and rescue may not be possible until the weather changes. There’re many opportunities to put characters in danger: avalanches, cracks appearing on thin ice, and death by freezing. The arctic island setting of Bear Island is arguably the most prominent character in the film, as it is in The Revenant and The Day After Tomorrow. The snow makes a terrifying environment, which tests the protagonist’s resourcefulness and survival skills. Nature is harsh. On the ice planet in Interstellar its coldness echoes the psychopathic instinct of the antagonist.

While not on the same scale, winter snow is often used to show the ordinary challenges that normal people face in the real world. Characters struggling with their day-to-day lives, now have the additional burden of travelling and coping with the snow. In Groundhog Day the hero is forced to relive the same day, repeatedly enduring the same snow storm. While in The Ice Storm, the frozen world of a snap storm heightens the domestic drama, externalising social distance and emotional coldness; creating a hidden danger that lurks within the everyday.

Snow isn’t all misery and hardship. It can be a vehicle to celebrate the hero’s skill, like the chase scene at the beginning of The Spy Why Loved Me; the birth of an unlikely friendship in Planes Trains and Automobiles; or the determination to succeed in Cool Runnings. In these stories the winter snow increases the challenge, creating another obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. From Frozen to New in Town, and It’s a Wonderful Life, the central character triumphs in the face of difficulty.

The snow-scape also provides a space for comic fun, or family bonding. In National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, despite the weather outside, the hero brings his family together and protects their future, a dream of a future that is built on the memories of his own childhood — childhood memories, like Charles Foster Kane’s on his deathbed in Citizen Kane where he clasps a snow globe, holding onto it until his final breath.

2018–01–25


The end

It starts with the end. At least that’s how you know you have an exceptional story — think of an amazing ending and work back to the beginning.

Whatever way your look at a story, the end is critical. Would Chinatown have been so memorable with a happy ending? Would Blade Runner have been as powerful if we’d known what had happened to Rachael and Deckard? Happy, or sad, a great ending does more than complete a remarkable story — it makes the story remarkable. That’s why so many stories are both entertaining and forgettable — because the ending is a missed opportunity.

What makes a brilliant ending?

I think it’s an ending that satisfies the story appropriately, and in some instances takes the story to another level, emotionally. It heightens the resonance, encapsulating the story so that it lingers on as an experience after the narrative is over. It makes the audience think. It provokes.

In the buddy movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is set in the old American West, the film ends with the two heroes making a suicidal charge. Just before they die the film goes into freeze frame. We know what will happen next, but because the story ends where it does — on that single frame — the reality of their death never occurs within the narrative. Stories are ‘arbitrary’ moments, ‘start’ and ‘end’ points decided by the author. In this case the story literally stops before the unthinkable happens. We’re left in a limbo, a purgatory of sorts. We know the fate of the heroes, but we will never experience it. Because of this, what should be a tragic, possibly even depressing ending, feels less downbeat — merely by ending three seconds early.

It’s masterful, but also a cop out.

The end of Thelma and Louise follows the same pattern as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We know that the two women drive off a cliff, but we can delude ourselves that — somehow — it could end up happy. In both stories, with similarly bleak endings, we’re left feeling that there’s some hope. Or at least we are spared the despair, which is probably not a great emotion to send your audience away with.

In the international cut of The Big Blue a self-destructive urge becomes a transcendental experience; a journey into a new world — the afterlife. Enzo, a deep-sea diver is in his element, constantly pushing himself to dive to ever greater depths. In the end he pushes himself too far and he can no longer return to the surface, the real world. In the US version, the ending has an additional scene where he makes it back up. The different endings result in two very different stories. One offers a mysterious, tragic and emotive end, the other an upbeat resolution.

Dr Zhivago has a dramatic ending when Zhivago chases a woman in the street — the love of his life who he has lost contact with (she’s also the mother of his daughter). He falls to the ground suffering from a fatal heart attack. The story could end there, but it continues with a low-key resolution. The denouement allows the audience reaction time, time to reflect on what’s happened and get over the shock before they leave the cinema.

The last scene of a film sums up the story’s overarching tone. It’s what the audience leaves with and remembers. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly the good character enjoys the last laugh, literally. He has deservedly won, defeated evil, and shown mercy to the ‘ugly’. He rides off into the sunset. His victory is total and the audience is left feeling upbeat. The tension has been resolved; we’re given permission to relax.

Some films have ambiguous endings, like The Bike Thieves or The Graduate. We don’t know what will happen next. Sometimes in a twist of fate, victory is stolen from the hero in the final moment, just when it seems that they have triumphed. In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot what appears to be a celebratory, happy ending, as the two heroes drive away into the sunset with the loot, turns into a tragic and shocking conclusion. The audience is not given time to reflect on what has happened. Why end it that way? Because it shows that the friendship between the heroes was more valuable than the money.

When an unremittingly bleak story ends with a glimpse of hope, as it does with THX 1138 (where the hero breaks free of a repressive technocracy) the audience is literally taken from a dark place into the light. Alternatively, positive experiences like discovery and adventure can be subverted through the ending. In The Wicker Man the delight of experiencing an unfamiliar culture ends in horror.

The pointless death of the hero is a tragedy and a warning. The hero who dies to serve a purpose finds redemption. The hero who defeats his or her enemy is celebrated as a success. The tone of a story is decided through its ending.

2018–01–19


The beginning

Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They usually open at the start of this sequence and close at ‘the end’. They can open in ‘the middle’, or at ‘the end’ and jump about back and forth in time. Non-linear narratives use flashbacks and backstories to fill in the missing gaps. Opening at ‘the end’ produces a how-did-we-get-here story. Opening in the middle creates a how-did-this-begin-and-how-will-it-end story. The storyteller chooses where the narrative opens.

Graham Green acknowledges this in the first line of The End of the Affair, ‘The Story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.’ Green acknowledges the writer’s control of the entry and exit points of their narrative. He hooks the reader by giving us an insight behind the creator’s curtain, mesmerising the reader with his ‘honesty’ (giving away the storyteller’s secrets), while offering us an intellectual conundrum.

While the start point may vary, all good beginnings need the same things: impact, mystery, intrigue, a way to demand the reader or viewer’s attention; a way to emotionally hook them and create empathy for a character, or to demonstrate a way of thinking about the world, which the audience can relate to.

In Apocalypse Now Benjamin L. Willard, a combat veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, looks up at the hotel room’s ceiling and imagines the fan as whirling helicopter blades. His narration, combined with images of him having a psychotic episode, bring us into his experience — we empathise with him, and, through his point of view, we witness the insanity of war.

A couple go for a drunken, romantic, midnight skinny-dip in the ocean. Moments later, in Jaws, the giant shark strikes. There’s a terrifying monster lurking in the sea: it must be stopped. How? Raiders of the Lost Ark also begins with a complete mini-story when Indiana Jones goes on a mini-adventure (it’s a complete story in itself with its own climactic chase scene) to steal a golden statue. If this amazing mini-story is just the beginning, just imagine what the rest of the film could offer? The Spy Who Loved Me takes the same approach. Even before the films credits have completed, the hero has literally, loved, taken up the call to action, given the audience a breath-taking ski chase, and escaped by skiing off a cliff and opening up a Union Jack parachute. It’s another self-contained mini-story within the wider narrative to come.

Another way of beginning a story is by introducing an element of the bizarre and the extraordinary. In Magnolia the story opens with a series of literally fantastic facts. It sets the scene for the surreal elements that emerge later on, and the unlikely, sometimes shocking, connections that will be revealed between the characters. It alerts the audience that the impossible can happen.

Sunset Boulevard opens at ‘the end’, a body floating in a swimming pool, the narrator is the voice of the murdered man. Tension in storytelling can be created through the audience wondering what happens next. It can also be produced by telling the audience what will happen, but not when it happens. Mystery, tension, and suspense come from making the audience wait; making them wonder how the plot will play out. In Sunset Boulevard we wonder: how did that floating body get into the swimming pool? What was the sequence of events that took the character to that moment? Other films that open at ‘the end’ are Citizen Kane, where Kane dies and releases the snow globe, letting it crash onto the floor, and Paris Texas with Travis Henderson walking aimlessly through the desert. How did this strange man get into this weird limbo? What happened?

Writers consciously play games with the narrative sequence. In Groundhog Day Phil Connors relives the same day; Phil (and the audience) experience a series of mini-stories, multiple versions of the same challenge. Leonard Shelby in Memento has amnesia. At the opening and the close, he doesn’t know where he is in the story, at the start, the middle or the end.

2018–01–15


Chinese people in Western films

Historically, the representation of Chinese people in European and Hollywood cinema tends to veer from: the dangerous ‘other’, to racial stereotypes, and the mysterious exotic. Chinese men and women are also portrayed differently, men are often represented as villains, greedy and calculating, or weak and subservient; and women as a ‘Dragon Lady’, controlling and treacherous (reminiscent of a sexually manipulative female, Film Noir character), often presented as an object of desire.

In 18th Century Britain the Chinese were viewed positively, as civilised and technically able, but this changed as the Imperial European powers expanded. With legal Chinese immigration into the US and the British Empire — often planned by Governments to provide cheap labour for large construction and mining projects — a racist, xenophobic fear developed (encouraged by the media) that Chinese labourers were unfairly undercutting American and European workers. This led to Sinophobia — a conspiratorial fear that the Chinese are intent on destroying Western culture — that was called the ‘Yellow Peril’, and ironically it arrived at a time when China was militarily weak and either being colonised, or itself dominated by Western or Japanese control, and Chinese immigrants to the US and the British Empire were likely to the ones facing unjust exploitation.

In the short British film Attack on a China Mission (1900) a missionary is killed by Chinese ‘Boxers’ and his wife is saved by sailors. The maiden in distress is gallantly saved from the horror of the anti-Christian, barbaric ‘other’.

Separate worlds

Many early films with Chinese characters accentuate the separateness of Westerners and the Chinese, and the tragedy that befalls anyone who crosses the barriers between the two — while simultaneously dwelling on the sensual, and exaggerating the exotic ‘mystery’ of the East. The Forbidden City (1918) tells the story of an inter-racial romance between an American man and a Chinese princess who is punished by death for her wrongdoing. The story continues, sometime later, with the daughter searching for her father in the Philippines. In Broken Blossoms (1919) a Buddhist missionary travels to London and falls in love with a cockney girl, whose violent father is opposed to their relationship. In the silent film Mr. Wu (1927) the Chinese father seeks revenge on an Englishman who has seduced his daughter. The ‘otherness’ of the Chinese characters is reminiscent of older, non-Christian characters in Western storytelling, such as Shylock from The Merchant of Venice: an alluring and beautiful daughter comes with the strings of belonging to the ‘other’, and a father intent on maintaining that separateness, whatever the cost.

The villain

When the separate Chinese world crosses into Western culture it is routinely portrayed in a negative light, as: devious, murderous, an arch villain, a super-villain, and the criminal mastermind of a criminal world. The Fu Manchu character has appeared in a number of films including, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), and The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). The Fu Manchu character was adapted from a series of novels first published in 1911. Fu Manchu is a professional criminal, dressed in what appears to be traditional Chinese clothing, sporting a long wispy moustache, and intent on destroying the West, or achieving world domination. In Flash Gordon (1936, 1940, 1980) the universe has already been conquered by the dastardly Emperor Ming (Ming the Merciless) who has both a Chinese sounding name, and is played by European actors, made-up to look asian. The Chinese super-villain crops up in the James Bond film Dr No (1962), this time sporting a mechanical hand (which closely resembles the hand of the crazed inventor in Metropolis); and in Cocaine (Retitled While London Sleeps) (1922) a hedonistic, Chinese-run (played by European actors) London night club, which epitomises the ‘roaring twenties’, leads respectable English customers astray, resulting in a father seeking revenge for his daughter’s death.

The non-threatening character

Another classic Chinese character in Western films is the amiable and non-threatening ‘lackey’ who works for a Westerner, usually in a low status capacity, or has embraced Western culture and operates ‘harmlessly’ within the system. The Charlie Chan character appeared in numerous films dating back to The House without a Key (1926), which is based on a novel from 1919. Although more of a real character than previous Chinese stereotypes — and respectably employed as a detective — Charlie Chan (often played by European actors) is still a racial stereotype, and something of a tolerated outsider. But Charlie Chan is important, because he is an ethnically Chinese man in the leading role, being portrayed in a positive light. Cato Fong from the Pink Panther (1963), Inspector Clouseau’s personal assistant, is also a more positive character than the Chinese super-villains, and paired with the equally ridiculous Inspector Clouseau his stereotype is less offensive, although still patronising, at least he is played by an ethnically Chinese actor. In the Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) Chinese misfortune is presented through the experience of a Westerner, who is guiding desperate Chinese orphans to safety (during the Civil War and Japanese invasion). Although based on true events, the woman whose life the story was based on had serious misgivings about the film’s liberties, including a prominent Chinese character being turned into a half-European. In The Good Earth (1937), a Chinese family drama set during the Civil War, the parts are played by European actors — the famous Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong was not allowed to play the heroine because the Hays Code prohibited scenes which suggested an interracial relationship: even though both her and her spouse (played by a White actor) were playing Chinese characters.

The Communist

In the 1950s and ‘60s, with the Cold War in progress, Communist China was increasingly viewed as a threat. In Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst (1957) a Royal Naval ship, delivering supplies to the British Embassy, comes under an unprovoked attack from Communist troops; in A Hill in Korea (1956) British troops are attacked by Chinese forces during the Korean War; in the US films The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Fixed Bayonets! (1951), and Pork Chop Hill (1959) US servicemen face both North Korean and ‘Red Chinese’ enemy troops while fighting in the Korean War.

The Communist Chinese are portrayed as overly aggressive, out for a fight with the West. In Seven Years in Tibet (1997) the Communist Chinese are seen as hostile, militaristic, fired up by hate-filled ideology and Chinese expansionism, invading gentle and peace-loving Tibet. The paranoia about ‘Red China’ becomes almost cartoon-like in paranoid films like Battle beneath the Earth (1967) where a renegade section of the Chinese military begins a war with America by tunnelling beneath US cities to plant atomic bombs.

The Kung Fu master

The Chinese martial arts expert represents a more positive image of Chinese people — empowered by the physical and mental discipline of their Kung Fu skills. Bruce Lee’s series of Hong Kong produced films were popular in Europe and America in the 1970s. Bruce Lee was followed by a spate of copycat American Kung Fu experts — one mainstream spinoff was the popular US television series Kung Fu (1972 - 1975) featuring a half-Chinese, half-White Shaolin monk searching for his half-brother in the American Old West. Here the plight of Chinese-Americans is portrayed sympathetically, often suffering from exploitation by greedy industrialists. Kwai Chang Caine, the Shaolin monk, also exemplifies the best of traditional Chinese culture: hard work, honesty, respect for other people, and ancient teaching. This new tradition of the powerful but wise Kung Fu master continues with Jackie Chan in films like Rush Hour (1998), and Shanghai Noon (2000), which break up the action sequences with light humour.

Stronger female roles for Chinese actresses include Lucy Liu’s part in Charlie’s Angels (2000), which included martial arts fight scenes, which by this time had become mainstream in Hollywood (in films like The Matrix). The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) included martial arts fight scenes, stunt action sequences, fantasy Chinese history, and supernatural elements.

The siren

The siren or ‘Dragon Lady’ character dates back to some of the very early representations of Chinese people in Western cinema. In Piccadilly (1929) a nightclub owner introduces a new Chinese dancer Shosho (previously employed to wash the dishes). Her success sets off a disastrous series of events, rivalries and jealousies. Shosho, like the dancing robot Maria from Metropolis (1927) is able to magically mesmerise men with her moves. She is a mysterious object of desire, possessing magic-like, charismatic power. The club in Piccadilly is a bohemian place, where boundaries can stretched, but when a black man dances with a White woman he causes outrage and is thrown out: where racism is socially ingrained there can only be so much toleration.

Chu-Chin-Chow (1934) features the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as the traitorous slave girl Zahrat, and features extravagant sets, luxurious costumes, and extended dance sequences. It’s a celebration of the exotic East, a land of uninhibited sexual licence, decadence and greed. The visual style of Shanghai Express (1932) echoes the Eastern exoticism of the mysterious ‘Dragon Lady’, with Shanghai Lily’s friend Hui Fei, also played by Anna May Wong. This time the story is set on a train (often perceived as a fast, glamorous mode of travel in the 1930s), against the backdrop of the Chinese Civil War.

In The World of Suzie Wong (1960) a beautiful ‘bargirl’ falls for an American artist who has decided to spend a year in Hong Kong. The film explores the separate worlds of the working class Chinese characters and the wealthy European expatriates (and the prejudices, and hypocrisy of the wealthy middle class English). Suzie Wong’s inability to come to terms with her job as a sex-worker (to support herself and her baby), echoes the kooky character of Holly Golightly’s denial in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s which was released a year later, in 1961. But, unlike earlier films with Chinese sirens, like Piccadilly, which predict disastrous consequences for mixed-race relationships, The World of Suzie Wong echoes the anti-establishment sentiment of the 1960s, and sympathy for two main characters going against the system, polite middle class society, and the status quo. They are able to define their own world, on their own terms, and succeed.

The James Bond film Dr No, with its famous Chinese super-villain, also has two Chinese sirens. Miss Taro is a Chinese agent working for Spectre, and she is intent on seducing, and then killing, James Bond. Annabel Chung, another of Dr No’s agents, is tasked with keeping an eye on Bond while under the guise of working as social photographer (dressed in a cheongsam). These representations return to the perception of Chinese characters as being dangerous and untrustworthy.

Cassandra Wong is the Chinese siren in Wayne’s World (1992), and appears in part as a homage to 1970s Kung Fu films, and as the romantic interest of the nerdy White protagonist. Although she is something of a stereotypical Hollywood ‘hot babe’, her character makes a positive contribution to the story.

Heroes, and real people

By the early 1980s Chinese people were gradually being presented as real people, which is to say believable, complete, characters. The BBC television series The Chinese Detective (1981–82) had a British Chinese central character who was presented in a positive light, and as an ordinary person. Peggy Su! (1998) is a story about various Chinese characters in 1960s Liverpool, focusing on their story — rather than appearing as an exotic ‘accessory’ in a narrative focused on White people’s experiences. The British Italian film, The Last Emperor (1987) sympathetically presented the story of Puyia, the last Chinese Emperor, by understanding him as a real person: his privileged background, his downfall from Emperor to a puppet ruler, and his eventual path to becoming ‘an ordinary person’. His story echoes the turbulent and traumatic events of 20th Century Chinese history, expressed through his own, idiosyncratic memories.

Today, while China plays a significant role in the global economy, and rivals the US technologically, Hollywood films like The Martian (2015), and 2012 (2009), present the Chinese as able to offer the US material assistance, but fail to deliver a prominent Chinese character. Like any target audience, the largely White (increasingly black, and in the US Hispanic) Western audience wants to see themselves reflected back in the entertainment they see — because mainstream entertainment plays an important role in individual, and group identity.

The representation of ethnically Chinese characters in Western films echoes the treatment of other non-White groups, who have frequently been marginalised, portrayed as untrustworthy (stupid, greedy, or villainous), and their woman as beautiful but treacherous (exotic sex objects): these worlds of ‘otherness’ play by different cultural rules, and values, often as part of a criminal underworld. While the representation of Chinese people in Western films has become more positive, there are still relatively few leading parts that offer strong and positive roles.

2018–01–09


The coming-of-age story in film

The coming-of-age story chronicles the journey from adolescence to adult. It explores the young person’s changing perception of the world — from a simplistic and naive notion, to a more rounded, experience-based understanding. These stories cover: sexual exploration, conflict with the adult world (hypocrisy, and power structures), friendship, personal identity, and self-reliance.

The genre predates film, going back into the world of literature: The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey (8th Century BC), The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759). The Catcher in the Rye (1951) sets the tone for more recent stories, with a naive central character, an informal, conversational first person narrative, and an unreliable narrator — all ingredients of the more recent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003).

In Stand by Me (1986), a classic coming-of-age story, an adult writer reminisces about his childhood friends, his bitter-sweet commentary, drawing on hindsight and nostalgia. It’s a story about loss: four adolescents go in search of a dead body in the woods (mirroring the death of the narrator’s brother in a recent accident). The story explores mortality, change, the end of an era, and ‘moving on’. While the narrator observes that his friends are imprisoned by the town, he is a prisoner of his memories.

Set in 1959, in a small town, in the classic era of Americana, Stand by Me is steeped in nostalgia for the past: ‘50s music, juvenile banter, ridiculous fireside stories, adolescents trying to act like adults, and the mystery of the road ahead. The four friends face a series of challenges that reveal their core identity — what and who they will become as adults: the low achiever; the misfit; the leader and problem solver; and the sensible observer.

Metropolitan (1990) combines a comedy of manners with an end of an era story. Adolescents are momentarily brought together — in this case through their affluent, middle class backgrounds and social networks — and go through a rite of passage, a kind of social purgatory, where the central character must decide what he wants, which turns out to be the realisation that he is attracted to a female character that he was dismissive of. The atmosphere — like Stand by Me — is one of transience and change. The entry test into the adult world — and self-actualisation — is being able to deal with a bully, before finally moving on.

Other examples of coming-of-age films include: American Graffiti (1973), and Dazed and Confused (1993) where the rite of passage occurs over the course of a single night; Empire of the Sun (1987), Boyhood (2014), and the television series The Wonder Years (1988 – 1993) take place over an extended period; Y Tu Mamá También (2001) emphasises sexual discovery; The Inbetweeners Movie, (2011), Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008) and Superbad (2007) send their main characters on quests to earn themselves a romantic relationship, and to gain worldly experience (beyond merely acting like adults); and Max Fischer in Rushmore (1998) must reconcile his idealised, romantic preconceptions of the world with hard-won friendships and relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.

Coming-of-age films often rely on a main narrator, who looks back at their experience, commenting with a sense of nostalgia, drawing on the wisdom of hindsight, tempering youthful emotion and excitement with a sense of perspective that can only be gained through the passage of time. And while their youthful experiences are brought to life with exciting encounters and adventures, their memories are tinged with the melancholy of acknowledging the loss of innocence, youth, and early friendships.

2018–01–03


Whitewashing

It’s been happening for a long time but, once again, it’s come to the fore — so-called ‘whitewashing’. This occurs when Caucasian actors (in films and in Theatre) play real or fictional characters who were originally black, or Asian. In the 2017 remake of Ghost in The Shell, for example, Scarlett Johansson plays the role of Major Mira Killian: should the Hollywood remake of the anime have used an Asian actress to play Major Motoko Kusanagi — the original character?

This question, whatever the answer, reverberates with notions of: authenticity, discrimination, racism, fairness, representation, commercialisation, marketing, and audience expectation. There’s a lot going on, which makes it an incredibly difficult question to resolve. Casting an Asian actress would have been more authentic to the original material, but as a Hollywood version of the story targeting a principally US audience it’s reasonably understandable to cast a famous American actress. What about giving the role to an Asian American actress? Regardless of the choice, the decision was a commercial one, and it seemed to work. The producers believed that Scarlett Johansson could carry the film, and would be an asset marketing it globally. While the make-up artists tuned her appearance, giving her black hair, in line with the original character, it would have been another thing to make her look Asian. This is a sensitive area, because there’s a history of Caucasian actors ‘blacking up’ or being made-up to look Asian, and the resulting performance — even with the best motives — feel patronising, insensitive, or more often, derogatory racial stereotypes. This practice disempowers black and Asian people, because they are being represented by a white person in a culture that marginalises ethnic minorities and people at the fringes. In the past, there might not have been enough Asian actors, but there’s no excuse today. Remember, it was once acceptable for men to play the female roles in theatrical productions, but this would be completely unacceptable now, unless it was a story about gender identity.

Fiction is fiction, which is to say that writers or casting directors can do what they like — it’s all made up. Hamlet can have an all-black or all-Asian crew and still make complete sense. Of course, it’s not technically historically accurate to cast black actors in those roles, but what have the audience come to see? A documentary recreating old Denmark, or a play about human relationships? It wouldn’t be historically accurate to have Indian actors making up an Ancient Greek army, but if it’s a Bollywood production targeted for distribution in India, why not? These things go both ways to some extent.

There’s been long history of ‘whitewashing’, from theatrical performances of Othello to Fu Manchu Films. There comes a point when it’s arguably a positive thing to have inclusivity and diversity as an end in itself, which means casting black and Asian actors in more interesting roles, especially leading ones. More importantly, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the kind of stories being told, especially in the UK in the 21st Century. Why don’t we have more drama set in the present, drama that celebrates and reveals the UK as it is today, drama that incorporates an ethnic mix, rather than a succession of period dramas personifying a weird notion of Englishness that feels stuck in a fantasy version of the past, and completely disconnected from life today.

Recently, Ed Skrein dropped an offer to play the role of a Japanese-American character in an upcoming Hellboy film. In other instances, non-white actors are simply erased from a script and replaced with a similar-but-white character. In Exodus: Gods and Kings white actors play Ancient Egyptians, no different to the glory days of Hollywood with films like, The Conquer (1956) featuring John Wayne as Genghis Kahn. This kind of ‘whitewashing’ recreated a whole world in the image of America. Even today European films and Television drama is remade by US studios in the hope of making it less foreign, and more familiar to an American audience — The Killing, The Office, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, Apocalypto (2006) features non-white actors who don’t even speak English dialogue. It’s brilliant entertainment because it tells a human story in a powerfully emotional and visually compelling way.

It’s time for storytellers to have a rethink.

2017–12–15


Reboots with women

The supernatural comedy-horror Ghostbusters (1984) has a fan base that propelled it to cult film status. So, when the reboot was announced it was a shock to some people that Ghostbusters (2016) would feature an all-female ghost-busting team with a token male secretary to man the telephone. Something of a reversal, you might think? For some fans it was too much, a betrayal of the original story — to others an all-female band of heroines made a refreshing twist on the original concept. Wasn’t it about time women played the leading roles in a big budget, Hollywood action-comedy?

Gender-reversing a classic can be a risky thing. It can take one of three routes. One: a complete reimagining of the story that goes down its own path — usually a risky move. Two: a like-for-like recreation, the same story but with women in the leading roles. This can feel wooden and contrived with the female actors mechanically slotted into what were previously male roles. Three: a combination of both, incorporating most of the old story with some twists, and the female leads making comic references to the original. As you might have guessed, most writers would probably hedge their bets and opt for the third route; building on what came before while having enough room to do something new.

The rebooted Ghostbusters was not purely about bringing back a beloved story, it was a calculated investment to re-establish a previously successful franchise. The thinking with the new version of Ghostbusters was that fans would always have the original — no one could take that away from them. An all-female crew could build on the Ghostbusters brand and audience familiarity, while maintaining sufficient distance to ensure differentiation from the source material. As a creative challenge writing an all-female Ghostbusters would offer creative opportunities, and a space to have some fun reimagining a beloved classic. Or perhaps not, as the case may be. The risk is that the old fans are put off by the ‘betrayal’ of the gender change, while a new audience might see it as ‘new’ enough.

More recently, a reimagined version of Lord of the Flies has been green-lighted for production. This time the survivors are from a girl’s school. The Lord of the Flies uses the plight of children struggling for survival on a deserted island to explore the descent from civilised values into ‘the rule of the jungle’, and the development of a primal, power-based hierarchy (based on abuse and violence) in the absence of the rule of law. If people were put off by an all-female Ghostbusters team, because that was seen as a gimmick, the same thing could be said for an all-girl Lord of The Flies. How will the writer make the gender change significant and meaningful?

This begs the counter-argument: why does this new story have to prove itself in a way that previous versions didn’t? Why does it have to be ‘more’? Ideally, any story will ‘go somewhere’ with its characters and the predicament they are in. With ‘fiction is fiction’ as the mantra, the writer can do what he or she likes. Why should an all-girl Lord of The Flies have to provide a new angle? A good story, which Lord of The Flies is, reveals something about the characters through the situation they are in. The change in gender does not necessarily change anything. But, what if the school was mixed? The writer could explore gender tension as well as social disintegration into ‘the rule of the jungle’. This new version is probably as much about marketing, and how the producers hope to sell the film, as any meaningful reinterpretation of the original novel.

Hollywood is famous for regurgitating old stories, especially ones that have been successful in the past. Updating a proven story to accommodate shifting fashions, social expectations and today’s zeitgeist, is one thing, but superficially dressing it up to give it the veneer of something new is another. Why not just write a new story? Because, selling a famous story we are already familiar with is easier. Having ‘Girl Power’ versions of classic male-centric stories is a positive thing, and should not be an issue in itself, so long as it’s not a ‘lazy’ and cynical marketing exercise to sell an overhyped and mediocre product.

2017–12–08


‘The Outer Limits’

The narrator, or the ‘Control Voice’, in The Outer Limits (1963 – 1965) speaks to the audience as if they are subjects in a laboratory experiment: ‘There is nothing wrong with your television set,’ he says. ‘Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. … We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.’ The ‘Control Voice’, along with the Film Noir lighting, Expressionist camera angles, ordinary people in ‘ordinary’ situations, brought into contact with alien beings, and the inventive variety of monsters, all characterised the show. Its influence on science fiction, fantasy and horror stretches far beyond the 1960s, with plot lines that influenced films like Men in Black (1997), Terminator (1984), and television series like The X Files (1993 – 2002). The scenario of a perfect geometric shape buried under the moon’s surface also appeared in 2001 (1968) — a symbiotic life-form that melds with human subjects, and people being sent back in time to save the human race, are both commonly used in science fiction.

The standard The Outer Limits plot involves a monster of some kind. They are usually scary, sometimes destructive, and sometimes beneficent and mean us no harm, but always slightly creepy and weird. One of the great things about the series is the variety of monster personalities, ranging from beings that are merely lost, and hoping to return home, to guiding spirits working to ensure that the universe is kept in balance, to scheming infiltrators planning to control the earth. The monster in ‘Galaxy Being’ is a bright humanoid-shaped light; in ‘The Sixth Finger’ the monster is an ordinary man with artificially boosted intelligence; in O.B.I.T. the alien being has taken on human form and has technologies that can watch everyone; in ‘Tourist Attraction’ weird dolphin-like creatures live in the sea; in ‘The Zanzi Misfits’ an all-powerful alien race is revealed to be a comical-looking bug with a human face; and in ‘Specimen: Unknown’ it’s a toxic flower.

Each hour long episode begins with a teaser, followed by the ‘Control Voice’, and the opening credits. The stories usually began slowly, building up the tension from an apparently mundane situation, gradually introducing the audience to a growing strangeness, alerting us to a character with a negative character trait, one that is likely play a critical role as the story unfolds. In the getting-to-know-the-monster section, the audience learns what motivates the monster, if it is here to help us, or it it is a threat to humanity. Part of the entertainment is working out how this plays out: friend or foe. In the problem solving section the hero learns how to overcome the monster, or help it to carry out its mission. In the climax there is a physical fight, a chase, or an unforeseen intervention occurs.

The resolution wraps things up quite quickly; it can feel awkward, pasted on almost. Finally the ‘Control Voice’ contextualises the story by relating it to a universal theme such as love or belonging. The Outer Limits is full of warnings, dangerous beings, interplanetary misunderstandings, unfortunate mistakes, as well as celebrations of friendly aliens, and heroes putting themselves in danger to save humanity.

2017–11–24


The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is a framework that identifies the various stages a hero passes through as he/she goes on their adventure. It sees the hero achieve their goal, and in the process of winning that, gain new friends, and become the person they have to be in order to transform from an ordinary person into a heroic figure. The hero’s journey originates from various notions about a great epic story, an ‘original’ story that transcends cultures: the monomyth.

Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) was the first analysis to coherently rationalise, and popularise, the classical myth form as the hero’s journey. A number of storytelling experts, academics, writing coaches, screenwriting gurus, have built on Campbell’s work, adapting aspects of it, and emphasising specific areas to suit contemporary genres.

In Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (2007), a popular screenwriting textbook, the essence of Campbell’s work is simplified for contemporary writers. These, and other, archetypes tend to be highly symbolic, influenced by Jungian notions of the subconscious, internal conflicts, and the persona.


Christopher Vogler’s archetypes


The hero may initially appear to be a fool, but will eventually develop his skills and behaviour, to become the respected hero. Alternatively, the hero may be marked out from birth as being a ‘cut above the rest’, destined to take on the role.

The second in charge, will often act as a foil, or contrast with the leader: he or she may initially fight the leader, before joining him or her on the quest. They may have the same common enemy. The magician is the wise one, often a professor or a thinker who has previous experience of the enemy, or monster, and can provide useful advice. The muscle man sees the world simplistically, but has incredible physical strength. The love interest, usually acts to encourage group harmony.

The hero will often have allies with special powers, skills or gifts. These may initially appear pointless, or ineffective, but they turn out to be invaluable to the hero’s success. Along the way, the hero’s allies will also be transformed into heroes of a kind — the coward learns to be brave, the mysterious one reveals himself, the unskilled fighter becomes a warrior. These transformations are akin (but different) to mini coming-of-age stories, which involve self-discovery, but they are not age related.


Christopher Vogler’s stages of the hero’s journey


Adaptations of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey tend to simplify his structure, highlight a specific perspective (like the spiritual journey), or adapt it to a specific genre.

2017–11–24


Swaps, leaps, avatars, mutations, and other body transformations

Stories help audiences to deal with issues, to see things from fresh perspectives — and to learn new things. The body swap and transformation story involves a radical change to a character’s body, usually a change of age, gender, sometimes even species. In a body transformation story the change occurs to one character: in the body swap two people exchange bodies. These transformations take the two characters from their mundane reality into a new world, usually with increased or reduced powers. The transformation creates a challenge for both characters: now they must re-experience the ordinary world that we take for granted.

Although the focus is on a physical — external — change, the body swap plot is about social roles and expectations: age, power, authority, experience, and gender, etc. Once in this new world the characters must reconcile their situation with each other and their place in the new environment, coping with their newfound limitations or learning to use their new powers wisely. In age-related body swaps a child typically brings playful solutions or naïve honesty to tired, cynical grown-ups; while the adult in an age-related body swap might bring rationality and responsibility to his or her new role as a child. Once these issues have been resolved the two characters return to their original bodies. The scenario is somewhat akin to the ‘voyage into an unknown world’ plot. At the end, the balance is restored and the characters have had their knowledge and experience expanded. In the comic novel, Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers (1882) by Thomas Anstey Guthrie (writing as F. Anstey) a father and son swap bodies. In Freaky Friday (1976, 2013) a mother and daughter swap bodies.

In Big (1988) a child is magically turned into an adult and brings delightful fresh thinking to the world of grown-ups. The magic is carried out by a mystical amusement park machine called ‘Zoltar’. A spell or magic is often the cause of the transformation, possibly dished out by a mysterious stranger. In Quantum Leap (1989 – 1983) the cause of the body transformation was a pseudo-scientific disturbance in space and time. The episode What Price Gloria? (1989) featured a gender transformation with the male protagonist ‘leaping’ into a female body, and a kiss between two ‘male’ characters. The same series also includes age-related ‘leaps’ and the white hero ‘leaping’ into the body of a black medical student in Black on White on Fire - August 11, 1965(1990).

Body swap and transformation stories can involve people turning into animals. In Dogmatic (1999) a dog and man swap bodies. And in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) Prince Kassim is turned into a baboon by the evil sorcerous Zenobia. In Avatar (2009) the ‘transformation’ occurs through futuristic technology, when a disabled man is trained to use a sophisticated mind-body link to connect his thoughts and conscious experience to the body of a giant blue alien. The fear of turning into the ‘other’ or becoming something repulsive or monstrous includes stories like the classic Kafka’s tale Metamorphosis (1915), when the protagonist turns into a giant insect-like creature. In The Fly (1958, 1986) a failed scientific experiment causes the central character to turn into a human-fly hybrid. Several 1960s The Outer Limits episodes featured characters who became monsters. In The Architects of Fear (1963) scientists mutate one of their group into a mixed-species human-alien being, so that he can shock humanity into peaceful co-existence. And, in The Sixth Finger (1963) a scientist accelerates evolution and transforms a volunteer into a human from the ‘future’. These monster transformations show the tragic consequences of ordinary people turning into the ‘other’. While Avatar explores transcendence: the escape from human limitation.

Body transformation and swap stories provide storytellers with a way of turning a character’s ordinary world into something strange and challenging. This allows the storyteller to explore prejudice, social expectation, injustice, wish fulfilment, and many other ‘what if…’ scenarios. And, along the way, the protagonist will overcome their fears, discover their identity — learn who they really are. They will use their new understanding to rectify old mistakes, to value the ordinary world in a fresh way. Or, by turning into a ‘monster’, appreciate what they lost when they became the ‘other’, something less ‘human’ on the outside, but just as human on the inside.

2017–11–14


‘Arrival’ Vs ‘Life’

The films Arrival (2016) and Life (2017) offer two versions of the ‘first contact’ story — humanity’s initial encounter with alien life. Both these stories feature plots based around the mystery of figuring out what motivates the alien life. Are they hostile? Should we trust them (and discover amazing things)? In Arrival, the aliens appear in an advanced space craft using technology beyond our comprehension. In Life the alien being is a micro-organism discovered in a Martian soil sample. In many respects, these two stories are diametrical opposites. The alien in Arrival uses advanced technology, which could be a threat to humanity, but in Life, because the alien grows from such an apparently simple organism it’s assumed to be less of a threat.

The ‘first contact’ story has a history stretching beyond cinema, going back into early literature with stories of people voyaging to the moon and meeting human-like extra-terrestrials. In earlier cinema, space explorers like Flash Gordon (from the 1930s-film series Flash Gordon) encounter fantastic novelty and exoticism in space, including alien ‘people’ with unusual cultures and customs (often influenced by non-Western cultures, in the Middle and Far East). This is a fantastic world where the ‘Earth rulebook’ has been torn up and anything seems possible. Flash Gordon, for example, had the novelty of human-animal hybrids (much like beings found in Ancient Greek mythology). In Flash Gordon these are the Hawkmen, and Mole Men amongst others. While Ming the Merciless, the totalitarian ruler of Mongo’s police state, is basically a Chinese Emperor in space. The point here is that the fantastic, including science fiction is as much about us and our reaction to new worlds, and new experiences, as it is about the space environment itself and space monsters — much like the mountaineering story, the mainstream audience appeal is really about human persistence and endurance rather than mountain climbing.

Alien monsters were first popularised in comics, and horror films in often salacious and titillating fantasy adventure. Arrival and Life are more sophisticated stories, nonetheless they both refer back to the same challenge that Flash Gordon and others face — comprehending an unknown world where we should not always rely on easy assumptions.

Invariably, in the ‘first contact’ story some aliens are friendly while others turn out to be deadly enemies. Well known examples of friendly aliens include: ET (1982), a cute alien that befriends a group of children; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), where super evolved aliens visit Earth. The space monsters include Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon, and the monsters in: The Blob (1958), Predator (1987), The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 / 1978), The Thing (1982), Independence Day (1996), and — perhaps the ultimate space monster — Alien (1979). So, Arrival and Life follow in a storytelling tradition of human encounters with friendly (wise, innocent) aliens, and malevolently monstrous aliens that lack empathy. Consequentially they work within predefined expectations of the friend or foe dichotomy.

Arrival is the hopeful story of an encounter with a friendly alien and Life is a warning about monsters in space. They reflect different attitudes to life, space, and humanity. The feminist viewpoint in Arrival stresses collaboration and trust, to learn from the aliens, but Life emphasises the violent struggle in ‘the survival of fittest’ (to use Darwinian language). These very different stories, and very different aliens personify selflessness versus selfishness — the story as a hopeful celebration versus the story as a stark warning.

2017–11–09


The system

Stories take place within distinct worlds that have specific characteristics. This can involve a social or cultural way of doing things, a hierarchy or stratification of power — a mind-set. In popular culture it’s referred to as ‘the system’, and protagonists often try to beat it to get justice, and to become themselves.

In the Ancient Greek world — the system — had been created by and was maintained by the gods. The mortal world was in many ways a mirror image of Mount Olympus where the gods fought one another and had political squabbles. A hero’s fate could be decided by divine intervention at any point along their journey. The mortal world was part of a game played as entertainment between the gods. A hero could alter his fortune by winning the assistance of a sympathetic god. This usually meant being given special information, a special power or a magical weapon. In the story of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea (granddaughter of the sun god Helios) casts a spell on the otherwise all-powerful Talos.

Jumping forward, the system in the Medieval European world was a God-given hierarchical order; God at the top, the monarchy ruling by ‘divine right’ below, then the aristocracy, next the landed gentry, and finally the peasants. There was an absolute distinction between good and evil. To defy the hierarchical social order was to act against Gods order, which meant imprisonment, death or torture. The Christian faith was used to enforce the established power structure which itself had been formed through brute force, arranged marriages, political alliances, and appropriated power (imprisonment, murder, and the strategic confiscation of property).

The slavery based system in the pre-Civil War American South enshrined in law that citizens could own other people (slaves) as property. The slaves did not have the same rights as ordinary citizens. They couldn’t vote, own property, and so on. This system used the medieval concept of a divine order, but twisted into a racist notion of an ethnicity-based superiority. Working to subvert slavery effectively meant subverting the law and interfering with salve owners’ right to own slaves. Fighting the system as a slave was extremely dangerous, because salves had almost no rights. In 12 Years a Slave and Amistad the central characters are swept up by circumstance into the horror and injustice of slavery.

In socialist based systems the workers have supposedly taken control over their destiny through revolutionary or democratic means. Divine right and slavery are abolished. Excessive self-enrichment at the cost of others is punished. But, in order to maintain and protect the system, information is used as propaganda to manipulate citizens and the police are used to physically control any dissent. Counter-revolutionaries are imprisoned or ‘re-educated’ to become compliant to the system. In 1984 Winston attempts to keep his mind free from the repressive state power which is based on Stalin’s USSR.

In the global capitalist system corporations are able to operate freely with less and less ‘red tape’ and regulation. The laws of free market capitalism allows them to evade tax and other responsibilities. The free flow of money, technology, jobs and production allows them to pick and choose how and where they operate. The end goal is shareholder profit and the concentration of power into the hands of an influential elite. The price of not being part of the system is losing out on future prosperity and employment — having resources diverted elsewhere. In Wall Street Bud Fox is seduced by Gordon Gekko into a world of affluence and power, only to realise the unethical consequences of his actions when his father and the business he works for is asset-stripped and the workers made redundant.

The Fascistic system (mostly associated with the 20th Century) combines aspects of the slave based system with the mass propaganda of revolutionary socialism. It empowers the ruling elite under the guise of nationalistic ends. It’s a form of extreme capitalism.

The dystopian society of the future takes place in a fascistic urban nightmare. The wealthy elite (the new gods) control the masses (the new slaves) and almost all society is kept-down as a slave class (kept passive by state propaganda, brainwashing, police repression, a quagmire of technocracy, or by technology itself). The wealthy elite have taken capitalism to an extreme, controlling technology, wealth and power for their own advantage. In Total Recall, Metropolis, Soylent Green, The Hunger Games, THX 1138, I, Robot, Logan’s Run, and Zardoz repressive elites — sometimes directed by arrant AI — repressively and manipulatively control society. Over time, functional and fit-for-purpose societies have been corrupted by greed, profit, authoritarian power, ideology, or an over-rationalised process.

There are other systems: theocratic systems, scientific (knowledge based) systems, military systems, and cultural systems. And permutations of different types of systems.

The system in storytelling represents the status quo, and the concentration of power — in the hands of the gods, the monarchy, the property owning class, revolutionaries (the party), or the political elite. The protagonist strives for an end to repression, seeking ‘freedom’ of some kind (emotional or intellectual) and a desire to live in a more natural and harmonious life.

The struggle for freedom may involve unmasking the truth, some dark secret at the core of the system (The Matrix, Soylent Green for example) or establishing a right to ones’ own identity (as in THX 1138), being allowed to be yourself (Moonlight), surviving in a violent culture centred around family-based rivalries (The Godfather), a working-class character beating the system (Trading Places, Wolf of Wall Street), incompetence in a military system (Attack, Paths of Glory, Catch 22) or a counterculture character asserting his or her identity within a stuffy middle-class culture (The Graduate).

The individualism of the protagonist or their desire for freedom and justice compels them to evade or escape the system, but the system inevitably chases them (fearful of an existential threat to its power). There comes a point when the protagonist must eventually assert their beliefs, and fight the system.

2017–10–11


‘The Last Picture Show’ Vs ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’

In Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a mysterious man arrives at a small town ‘in the middle of nowhere’ — stepping off a train and inquiring about a Mr Komoko — his presence makes everyone in the town uncomfortable. The Last Picture Show (1971) tells the story of a group of teenagers, coming of age in a ‘dead end town’ that’s been sidestepped by mid-20th Century America.

These stories explore the flip-side of the American dream, the antithesis of the jingoistic ticker tape parade — not exactly a diabolical or dystopian world, so much as one where things have gone off the rails, where working class underachievers blunder into lives of low expectation, desperately seeking meaning in whatever way they can. In Bad Day At Black Rock the mysterious stranger breaks through the poisoned status quo by sheer persistence, and in the process he comes into violent conflict with the town bully. While in The Last Picture Show the distraction of sexual adventures helps to cut through the empty claustrophobia of small town life.

These stories take place in an iconic Americana filled world: Coca-Cola vending machines, working class cafes, barbershops, and in Bad Day at Black Rock a one street town with a hotel straight out of a Hollywood Western; the town’s ‘baddie’ even wears a Stetson. In The Last Picture Show the Stetsons have been replaced by hard hats for the oil workers, no longer working on the land but drilling into it for oil. While the legendary and heroic cowboy has been subverted in Bad Day At Black Rock, a perpetrator of racism and a ruthless murder, in The Last Picture Show the working class ‘hero’ is struggling to survive in a new world, hoping he can get a manual job in the oil industry to pay the bills.

But these are small towns with small town thinking, and the stifling social conventions of conservative 1950s America. In these small towns ‘everyone knows everyone’, and everyone else is an outsider. It’s an inward-looking world. Teenagers, without the opportunity of a place at university, are doomed to a mundane and inconsequential life. These are the backwaters, culturally dead, ossified by the status quo. The youth, with their dreams and aspirations, will surely have their hopes dashed and endure a frustrating future. Even relative success stories in The Last Picture Show are tarnished by unhappy marriages, futile resentments, and destructive rivalries — and in one case is literally unable to perform. This is far from the American dream, more like an American failure. At best, characters are bundles of desire, subjects of their uncontrolled hormones, and at worst — in Bad Day At Black Rock — poisoned by boredom, lack of self-worth, the resentment of being shown up by a hard worker, and racism: a drunken evening turns into the harassment of an innocent old man and his eventual murder.

The racist murder of the old Japanese man in Bad Day At Black Rock by the town’s ‘good old boys’, means that the stranger must give the medal Mr Komoko’s son earned saving the stranger’s life (during the World War Two Italy campaign), to the town — but only after he had bought the perpetrators of the murder to justice. His heroic action frees the town from the tyranny of living a dark lie: the knowledge they all share of the murder, and the fear of exposing the murderer. The hero, fights for what is true, honourable and right — and having slain the monster, hope can be restored. But he could almost have turned up at the town in The Last Picture Show instead of Black Rock, because they share the same dysfunctional unwillingness to acknowledge their darker side.

While the stranger has returned from the Second World War, a main character in The Last Picture Show leaves to go to Korea. One can only wonder what that experience will do to him — if he survives. The stranger who appears in Bad Day at Black Rock admits that missing one arm — lost in combat — left him depressed, but now he has a reason to live.

Both these small towns are dying and the murder of Mr Komoko in Bad Day At Black Rock symbolises the death of its soul, and in The Last Picture Show the death of the owner of the picture house — literally means the death of the American ‘dream factory’ — relegating the town folk to isolation and a future that lacks opportunity. The death of the young innocent close to the end of The Last Picture Show — run over by a truck — emphasises the tragic nature of the story: it feels like a sad and lonely place full of loss and failure, whereas Bad Day At Black Rock offers a reason to celebrate, because there is still a hero in town to restore hope, even if he is only passing through.

2017–10–05


Salvation, liberation and freedom in storytelling

An audience is more likely to empathise with a character who has a purpose, especially if his or her goal is a basic human desire. In The Road, the Man hopes to take the Boy to safety. In Ice Cold in Alex Captain Anson hopes to take the soldiers and nurses under his command out of harm’s way, and return them to the safely of Alexandria. A visible goal gives a character a dynamic, which is to say, the motivating desire to restore the story’s ‘balance’. It’s only through achieving this that a character can achieve his or her meaningful purpose — this mirrors similar desires held by the audience. The desire for salvation, liberation, and freedom are basic real world and storytelling human goals.

A character’s quest takes them on a journey, which leads to a destination. This new place can be a physical space, or an inner-revelation that leads to a rediscovery of the existing world. While characters search for many things, these goals can often be summed up as some form of salvation, liberation, or freedom. This attainment can take different forms: material (money, wealth, possessions); emotional (success, winning, status, happiness), spiritual (harmony, balance, peace, connection), or inter-dimensional form (transcendence). It can be defined positively, as an emotional feeling (a sense of well-being, and a lack of boundaries), and negatively as ‘freedom from…’ something (not being hungry, not experiencing pain, not suffering from poverty, not having a feeling of being unloved, not being lonely, not being successful, not being popular, and so on).

The biblical story of the Jews being led out of Egypt, to the Promised Land, is a classic story of freedom, salvation and liberation. An escape from repression and injustice takes the Jews on a journey to a new land where they can once again live and prosper. This new world is a place of learning, enlightenment, community, and relative plenty. This sanctuary or ‘promised land’ may be a blank slate, or a place where the existing culture and laws allow people to be who they are without fear of punishment. During the Cold War, East Germans escaped over the Berlin wall, fleeing a repressive Communist regime for the ‘freedom’ of the West.

‘Freedom’ in real life and in storytelling can be difficult to define. In The Lord of the Rings it means defeating the dark forces of Mordor. In Battleship Potemkin it means a violent revolution to overthrow the injustice and inequality imposed by a ruling class. In The Last Picture Show and Moonlight it means the freedom to share some common humanity. While in The Matrix Neo experiences freedom as a pseudo-spiritual awakening — his inner-liberation leads to wider group liberation in the ‘real’ world. In Logan’s Run, Logan 5 and Francis 7 are searching for a place called Sanctuary, but Sanctuary turns out to be the rediscovery of their common humanity (a less hedonistic, less technological, more natural lifestyle). Freedom can imply an opportunity to thinking about who we are, and how we should live.

Liberation and freedom in storytelling can relate to an individual’s personal struggle (a character’s quest for basic happiness, or self-transcendence), or the group fight for emancipation from injustice (the abolition of slavery, opposing prejudice). The personal journey is one of inner salvation, which, once achieved, can be reflected out into the world. The group journey is a struggle for justice (equality and representation and opportunity). These are stories involving journeys: the inner journey, the political journey, and the journey of hope (to a symbolic new land). At their most basic and psychological level they are journeys to a place where you can be yourself, and feel good about it (bringing an experience of happiness, security, safety, empowerment, status, and belonging), or an escape from unwanted emotions (that crush the human spirit with feelings of fear, powerlessness, confusion, despair, repression, conformity, and meaninglessness).

2017–10–03


Family

Family is our home, it’s where we come from, and return to. Characters without a family, will go in search of one, or create a new one. The need to belong satisfies a deep psychological desire. It forms the basis of how we see ourselves and the world around us. Who we are. Identity.

In the novel The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), a family, the only survivors of a shipwreck, are forced to survive on an isolated tropical island. They are able to cope with their new life through personal strength, working as a team, and by following a Christian-derived ethos of hard work, prudence, faith and fortitude. The father is a good father and the mother a good mother — both are dedicated to their family’s future. The Griswold family in the 1989 comedy National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has the same caring mother and father characters, who are once again fighting to survive in a hostile world. Clarke Griswold’s nostalgia for his childhood innocence is an emotional escape from the harsh realities of the corporate workplace. Clarke wants to celebrate his family and traditions, and to protect their (middle-class) future.

In The Godfather, family is more than belonging; it denotes who a character should and should not trust. Who they fight for and against to protect the ‘honour’ of the family in their violent quest for money and power. An insult to the family cannot be tolerated, nor can an act of disloyalty go unpunished. Family members are expected to give absolute obedience to The Godfather, the criminal overlord. The mafia family in The Godfather is partly a traditional expanded family unit, and partly a violent, illegal business that trades on fear, theft, and contraband. Family is the ‘blood’ that forms the bonds of trust between its members.

When a character does not have a family of his or her own — perhaps they never truly had a family or they are the last remaining member — they must seek out a new one, and, in doing so, they will enrich their own lives and the lives of those they befriend. Usually, family is something people are born into, it’s a given, unlike an earned bond between characters that’s based on friendship. In Trains Planes and Automobiles an uptight, yuppie executive (middle-class) keeps on bumping into a fellow traveller, an over-friendly salesman (working-class). Their journey is the classic buddy story: initial loathing gradually turns into a friendship based on shared values. In this story there’s the literal family, the family of friendship, and the family of commonly shared values. Through their friendship the uptight salesman gets in touch with his humanity, and the sloppy salesman learns to be more considerate to others — the friendship is mutually beneficial. The salesman is symbolically allowed into the salesman’s life, to be part of his family, when he’s invited for Thanksgiving. Another friendship-based family group forms in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy befriends the Cowardly Lion (who wants courage), and the Tin Man (who wants a heart). Through the experience of their shared journey their wishes are granted, and Dorothy finds her way home back to her real family.

The traditional family unit faces many challenges in the contemporary world with changing lifestyles, shifting cultural values, single parent families, economic uncertainty, gender politics, and social disenchantment. In American Beauty Lester Burnham attempts to keep his family together, to survive in a corporate world, and rediscover a sense of who he is. To achieve this, he must break with convention and free himself from the prison of his own making – his life – and reconnect with the real Lester Burnham. Family has become an unfulfilling trap which robs all its members of their identity. The monstrous family of The Adams Family are oddballs bound together by their strangeness, and social alienation from conventional society, and yet they are just a ‘regular family’ with the occasional squabbles, sibling rivalry, and fits of jealousy. By working together as a team, they can solve their problems. The single parent family is explored in I, Daniel Blake. When a mother struggles (and makes sacrifices) to look after her children in a ruthless, dystopian bureaucracy, she befriends Daniel Blake, and his support for her and her children forms a wider extended family circle.

Happy families rarely make for interesting stories: something dramatic must happen to upset the balance of things, to create conflict and provide the motivating goal the characters need. Balance can only be restored when arguments and differences are resolved, and when the family is safely protected from harm. The family in Cape Fear must be protected from a psychopath; the work / life balance and sense of identity must be restored in RV; and suspicion and personality conflicts harmoniously resolved in Meet the Parents. The darker side of family life is explored in Festen, and Dogtooth. These are stories where parental trust has been obliterated, the family is riddled with lies, hypocrisy, and terrible secrets. It’s a place where male power has run riot, leading to a grim world of immorality, perversion, and abuse.

Whether it’s the traditional family structure of The Swiss Family Robinson, the absolute power of the mafia family in The Godfather, the struggling modern family of American Beauty, the single parent family of I, Daniel Blake, a friendship-based substitute family (a band of heroes) of Star Wars, The Hobbit, or Toy Story, or the darkly dysfunctional family of Festen, the family — of one sort or another – remains a critical theme in storytelling, and a cornerstone of identity.

2017–09–27


‘Badlands’

In Badlands (1973) fifteen-year-old Holly Sargis falls for James Dean look-a-like Kit Carruthers. He’s handsome and charismatic, but he’s ten years older; a looser without a future. When Holly’s father vocally disapproves of her relationship with a rubbish collector, Kit murders her father and they flee. The rest of the story plays out like a self-destructive suicide note.

This is an American tragedy that’s told more of less objectively, even Holly’s voiceover narrative comes across as weirdly distant. The story doesn’t judge the characters. Kit and Holly’s relationship is doomed from the outset, which makes their deluded hope of a new life completely futile. Their makeshift forest camp in the woods, echoing Huckleberry Finn, provides a transient retreat from society.

Badlands is a story about a dysfunctional American dream. When a white working-class delinquent has nothing in his life worth living for except his love of a schoolgirl, someone he can never be with. There are parallels here with The Last Picture Show (1971) with the depiction of dead-end small-town America.

The violence is handled matter-of-factly, not glamorised. The outcome of Kit’s violence never produces any gain. It seems like one pointless act after another, never really solving any of his problems, only making things worse. It’s incredibly casual and spontaneous. Kit knows he’s going to get caught. It’s only a matter of time. One could argue that Kit is a classic American delinquent in the vein of a Marlon Brando or a James Dean character, but he also fits into the psychopathic character of American Psycho; using charm and charisma, and when that doesn’t work readily resorting to violence, as if that is completely normal.

The film is immersed in Americana, a lost golden age, a nostalgia for American greatness perhaps, a time when Cadillac’s had tail fins. The cinematography has a poetic quality to it. The viewpoint is objective and the camera work unassuming. It avoids gimmick. In the moments where the characters are surrounded by nature, the landscape seems heavy with resonance and implication. This hints at the cathedral of nature in The Thin Red Line. It suggests a wider context, the bigness of time, being within an almost boundless space – passing through history.

Holly’s narrative, even with its apparent young adult naivety, feels vaguely literary. Although she’s an unreliable narrator, she’s the one making sense of all this for the audience. Her summary of events at the end of the film, as if she’s reading out from her diary, is heard alongside the image of a beautiful sunset, which suggests the metaphysical.

This story is a tragedy and a warning, but one without a political agenda. It doesn’t point any blame. It leaves the judgement to the audience. Kit is certainly a monster, but not one from a horror story or a terrifying creature from outer space; he is an ordinary monster from our everyday reality, a handsome monster with a convincing chat-up line, but no less destructive.

2017–09–20


The enemy impostor, and the enemy within

The enemy impostor, and the enemy within, live inside our world, passing off as one of us. They have covertly infiltrated the safe zone of ‘home ground’; doing their bidding almost as they please, stealing commercial and military secrets, spying on our activities, and working steadily towards their deadly master plan: social control — our annihilation.

The enemy imposter is the perpetual ‘other’ hiding under the assumed cloak of ‘us’; a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may originate from another part of the world — most likely a competing nation, or rivals — they know how to play the political game: feigning friendship while, all the time, undermining our system from within. They may come from a more distant place, somewhere deep in space, another planet, and resemble hideous monsters — but, by using a devious technology they’re able to look like humans. Or, they may have been one of ‘us’, but through torture and brainwashing they have become one of ‘them’, and now they’re loyal to the enemy from outside.

In the real-world political climate of the late 19th and early 20th Century, British German rivalry became apparent when German industrial output massively increased, and Germany began to develop its own navy — putting it in direct competition with the British Empire and the Royal Navy. Stories like Riddle of the Sands (1903) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) depict the Germans as ‘up to no good’, secretly developing their military technology, and actively stealing our secrets via a network of secret agents covertly operating in Britain.

In The Hundred Days of The Dragon (1963) episode of The Outer Limits an asian nation has applied a mask-like technique to one of its agents so that he is able to murder, and then impersonate a US presidential candidate. The people around him begin to suspect something is wrong when the agent makes minor character slip-ups, and starts making unusual political decisions. Eventually the plan, to stealthily take over the US political establishment person-by-person, is exposed. A similar plan provides the basis for Future World (1976) with guests to the resort being murdered and replaced by lifelike androids, who are then sent out into the world to do the bidding of the owners. The other side of the enemy imposter is explored in The Americans (2008 – 2017), where two Soviet agents pose as US citizens — their ‘American’ children unaware of their rouse — while, all the time, working for the KGB. This creates a dramatic tension between audience empathy for the protagonists, and the knowledge they’re on the ‘wrong’ side.

In They Live (1988), aliens have landed on earth and are using a special transmitter to hide their extra-terrestrial features, allowing them to go about their business unimpeded. They have covertly taken over the police, politics, the corporations, and the media, and now they are syphoning off profit and wealth for themselves, and their human collaborators. The world is plastered with invisible messages, pacifying the population with mind-controlling auto-suggestions. While in Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1978) a plant-like alien life-form is replicating people one-by-one, sucking the life out of them while they sleep and producing weird personality-drained clones from cocoons. The horror of both these stories is the way in which the aliens are able to operate almost in plain sight, without anyone noticing — until it’s too late.

The enemy imposter can be one of us who has been ‘turned’, as if by some dark and troubling magic or brainwashed into becoming a monstrous weapon. In The Manchurian Candidate (1962) a brainwashed American POW returns to the US on a secret mission to assassinate the president. In Homeland (2011 – 2017), Nicholas Brody a US Marine returns from being held captive by Islamic extremists, feted as a hero, but investigated by Carrie Mathison as a potential terrorist, his loyalty, further questioned by his conversion to Islam. In the unlikely comedy Four Lions (2010) four young Englishmen are self-radicalised into becoming terrorists. Suddenly ‘our lads’ are plotting to murder British people on the UK’s streets.

The enemy impostor is seen as an underhand and devious tactic for any enemy to resort to. The enemy within, ‘our own’ who have turned into the ‘other’, are viewed as supremely treacherous and disloyal. Even in total war, combatants are expected to behave in certain ways, to obey the Geneva Convention and show common decency. In The Eagle Has Landed (1976), and Battle of the Bulge (1965) Nazi troops don Allied uniforms to conceal themselves as Allied soldiers. This subterfuge is regarded as a contemptible deception — ‘unfair’, ‘cowardly’, ‘cheating’ — it doesn’t play by the ‘rules of war’.

2017–09–15


‘Assault on Precinct 13’

An explosion of violence is unleashed on the audience in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) when a violent gang attacks a police station. The story combines Rio Bravo with Night of the Living Dead.

Ethan Bishop, a black policeman, takes command of a dilapidated police station on its last operational night before being decommissioned. The station is in a rough, gang-ridden neighbourhood — to defend it, Ethan Bishop must work with two dangerous prisoners, earning their mutual trust.

The story presents an interesting vision of a broken America torn apart by poverty and lack of opportunity. In this urban dystopia, the police are at war with the gangs, who are presented as ‘lost’ to society. They are somewhat akin to a supernatural affliction, a relentless marauding presence who appear at night like demons from a horror story. The gang members are ‘cartoon’ baddies, reminiscent of ‘classic’ era ‘Cowboy and Indians’ stories, where the heroic characters fight a dangerous ‘other’. The gang members are presented as a dangerous monster, their humanity downplayed, coming across as almost mechanical. They never speak, or show human traits, and are often depicted in silhouette or with their faces obscured.

To give the story a contemporary twist the conventional hero, Ethan Bishop, a black policeman, is forced to work with a white criminal, Napoleon Wilson. The gang members come from a racially diverse background. Although the story’s violent plot feels very machismo, it doesn’t have the unpleasant misogyny of many 1970s action films, like The Wild Bunch (1971). The female character Leigh works as an office administrator, but she’s able to handle herself in the ensuing chaos, and use a gun when necessary. She is both feminine and strong, instead of the frequently common 1970s characterisations of women in dramatic action plots as hysterical and prone to becoming a liability. It’s a positive representation.

The story lingers at the beginning, typical of many 1970s crime films, presenting the audience with a realistic scenario and building the suspense — describing the elements that make this ‘perfect storm’. The audience knows that something bad is going to happen sooner or later; it’s a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. In this sense, it’s akin to a tragedy in the making, or a disaster movie. The attention to the build-up creates realism and provides a voyeuristic space for the audience to watch the action as it happens. The audience are real-time observers. The dramatic action sequences hark back to the scenarios of ‘old fashioned’ ‘Cowboys and Indians’ stories — but relocated to a contemporary, urban blighted America. The good guys are ‘holed up’ in a place they can’t escape from (a farmstead, a canyon, or a defensive circle of wagons), outnumbered by the monstrous ‘other’, who dishes out horrific violence without showing any guilt or mercy.

Inside the building, Ethan Bishop is the strong, level-headed leader everyone depends on for their survival. He must put his faith in two prisoners to help him fight off the gang members, and a couple of female office workers. They are a typical ‘ragtag band’ fighting against the odds, battling the merciless ‘other’. The action sequences are like a game of Whac-A-Mole (1976) with danger popping up here and there, requiring quick reactions to stay alive. The repetitive, almost task-based nature of the fight scenes has a computer game simplicity to it — akin to a tower defence game. The gang members keep appearing at the same windows and doorways, and the interior of the building appears as a sort of computer game maze of interconnected corridors.

Assault of Precinct 13 shares similarities with John Carpenter’s later film The Thing, which sees a group of scientists fending off a violent body-morphing alien. The corridors inside the police station could almost be the corridors inside the Antarctic research station, the heroes in both stories are fighting off a relentless monster. There’s also the trust element: can Ethan Bishop trust the prisoners who are fighting with him; can the hero in The Thing trust the people around him (they could be aliens in human form). Both stories share the same, simple but effective, ‘shoot ‘em up’ style action format that later became the go to scenario of so many first-person computer games.

Unlike many 1970s action films, Assault of Precinct 13 manages to be both shockingly violent and yet retain a moral core. It celebrates the teamwork and trust required to defeat a ruthless enemy, and warns about a dystopian world overtaken by a dehumanising gang culture.

2017–09–15


Virtual worlds

Virtual worlds are computer generated environments where characters have defining experiences that either mirror or subvert expectations of reality. They’re a contemporary development of the play within a play; a story within a story. The virtual world provides an opportunity for an allegorical parallel to the real one. It may be uncannily super-real, dream-like, surreal, or nightmarish in quality. Unlike literary worlds, such as the parallel story in Nocturnal Animals, or a dreamscape like Inception, virtual worlds are technological — machine generated experiences.

Virtual worlds must be experienced through some form of human-machine interface. This is usually a sensor array attached to the head or body, a port of some type connecting to the back of the head or the spinal column. The interface may have symbolic references to drugs, such as ‘jacking in’, sexual references, or connotations of slavery and imprisonment.

The revelation

The ‘uncanny’ is a description applied to virtual experiences that literally creep people out; although they appear might appear to be real there’s something disconcertingly unnatural about them. In the revelatory virtual reality story the central character believes they are living in the real world only to discover, usually through an experience of something weird that doesn’t seem true, that their perception of reality is in fact a lie. This story has philosophical resonance with ideas about the nature of reality, and our sensory perceptions of the world around us (for example, the classic ‘brain in the bucket’ thought experiment). As the central character attempts to work out what is going on, the story can venture into the classic ‘detective mystery investigation’ mode. The revelatory experience of a virtual world is often an allegory of religious awakening, or self-discovery.

The Matrix is one of the best known ‘uncanny’ reality scenarios, where a hacker called Neo notices a black cat, apparently on a recorded loop. This ‘glitch’ leads him to question the nature of his reality. There’s often a surreal influence to these stories: a version of Surrealism where the ordina