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 from captured alien technology). Young people are the only suitable candidates to pilot these remotely controlled ships (because adults have slower reaction times).
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 sociopath – a disturbing 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.
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 Handmaid’s Tale
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.
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 criticism is subjective, and many readers will delight in Atwood’s rich literary language and the opportunity to live inside Offred’s head.
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 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.
The Ipcress File
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. 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.
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 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 nonsense. 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 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 story 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. But, crazy as this world is, there will always be a hero willing to make a difference.
- Bill and Ted Face the Music isn’t great. Pretty much everything around Bill and Ted are more interesting than Bill and Ted. Their wives are more interesting, and their daughters are more interesting. 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 doing a few dad-jokes.
- 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. 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I’ve been watching old 1990s films and TV series. Including, among them, a few episodes of the The X-Files. 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? Probably not.
- In the last two years I’ve thought a lot about viewpoint and tense – which ones should I be using in my fiction? The two options that I’ve seriously considered have been, first person with the present tense, and third person with the past tense. 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. 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. 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). The first person narrator is directly connected to the prose style and the tone. 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, it’s like having a multi-camera setup.
- 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)… but, I couldn't get into it because of the dry prose.
- 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.
- 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. 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 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. 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 statement. 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?
- The Puppet Masters (1994) 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 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, completely ridiculous.