Sunday, 25 December 2016

Spirit of the age

Just watched the (flawed, and, in retrospect, surprisingly lopsided, structurally-speaking) Yuletide classic, It's a Wonderful Life.

When George Bailey gets his wish and the snow stops falling and his lip stops bleeding the twelve-year old pipes up: "Does that mean that he's invincible?"

Bloody DC and Marvel have a lot to answer for.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Star Wars part three and a half

Contains spoilers

Well, somebody didn't obey orders, did they?  What was billed as a separate, standalone tale from the Star Wars storyverse turned out to be the full-blown missing link between parts three and four.  And no bad thing, even if we know, by implication how things turn out.  Plus there's an added structural challenge: classically act two would all be about stealing the plans of the Death Star, and the final act using them to destroy it.  But, no: that all has to happen in A New Hope.  Indeed, Gareth Edwards deserves praise for ensuring it doesn't feel like it's come to a shuddering halt, as if somebody's lost the final reel, a la Empire.  And not just for that; overall it is helmed with aplomb, helped by Felicity Jones and Diego Luna showing the am-dram of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega for what it was.

What I particularly liked was, rather than taking JJ Abrams' approach of creating a narrative doppelganger of an earlier story, Edwards captures the aesthetic of the 1970s/80s movies, which themselves took the vacuum tube-punk of 1930s Flash Gordons et al as their kicking off point.  There were particular scenes, shots, angles that felt like old friends.  That tunnel entrance on Scarif?  Think of the jungle battle at the end of the Teddy Bear Movie (retitled, I think, in some territories as Return of the Jedi).  A uber-liftshaft with challenging access issues?  Check.  Even an R2 unit skating across the screen from middle distance right to foreground left - I'm not going to search through the movies, but that wasn't accidental.

And, thankfully, no sodding cantina with a jazz band who are all alien but essentially bipedal and vaguely humanoid in scale and proportion, even if they are encumbered with what are obviously rubber heads.  Plus, another layer of dirt on those first three parts isn't a bad idea; bury them deep, deeper, until no living soul remembers their names.  All in all, quite a triumph.

However, I do have a sense of unease about the ending.  About Scarif.

Not the obvious one: that what is essentially a big filing cabinet, an interstellar Hayes repository, appears guarded by the SAS.  No, my concern runs much deeper.  It is a metaphysical - possibly ontological - concern, no less.  About the nature of data.

You see, the plans of the Death Star are a Maguffin; the object of the hunt, the thing people are prepared to sacrifice themselves for.  For this to work it has to be a single physical object.  It makes no sense otherwise.  But the Star Wars storyverse admits of digital data: Director Orson is ordered to check the records and content of messages sent by Galen Erso; the plans themselves are broadcast to the ships.  This is digital data and the great thing about digital data is that it is infinitely replicable and, in theory, remotely accessible.

You want a digital file?  Don't leap into your spaceships (without even grabbing a water bottle - seriously; fail to prepare, prepare to fail); no, get a hacker on the case.  But that wouldn't have made for a big battle scene at the end, would it?

Plus - let's stop a moment and consider this - we are to believe that the Death Star has one set of plans?  You can find the plans for the remodelling and extension of our house, digitally and physically, in the filing cabinet next to where I'm typing, and in the offices of the local Council (planning and building control), our architects, the builders (both the ones we used and unsuccessful bidders), the company that designed our underfloor heating, plus probably a few other contractors I can't think of at the moment.  And that's just a £180k domestic building project, not a space-going, planet-sized, planet-destroying vessel.

It's a small story point, but I'd be prepared to believe that the plan showing the flaw in the Death Star's structure was too valuable to be trusted to a digital plan and was held as a single, encrypted physical version, impossible to reproduce or transmit.  Even show us a failed attempt to access them remotely.  Then all the palaver to get them makes sense.  Otherwise I'm constantly being pulled out of the story, my mind constantly asking 'Really?'.

This is where the worlds of sci-fi ancient and modern, Flash Gordon and the X-Men clash unsuccessfully.  I've never had a sense of a film being so easy to parody, the hurdles that a story of stealing digital data creates for itself coming down essentially to issues of buffering and broadband speeds and getting up on the roof to align your aerial.  Scrolling yellow text?  I wonder if the next movie will have it as a never-completing blue bar?

Thursday, 8 December 2016

There'd be an app for that

Caught the ever so slightly very minor sci-fi movie The Final Cut the other night.  A fine understated late Robin Williams performance, even if the story revolves around a plot point so half-baked it was like the script had been developed out of a chimp's fingerpainting that only coincidentally resembled contentful language.

Anyway, that's not what I'm here to talk about.  In the story recording implants are available to anyone with the cash to pay, to be downloaded and edited post mortem by 'Cutters'.  Highlights of a life are then played as an eulogy at the funerals, if the noise of protesters at the practice doesn't drown out the resulting home movie.

There are elements of this that I see being worryingly prescient.  Why should we not, in the next two or three decades, be able to take a feed off the optic and auditory nerves, to be stored and played?  We may not even have to do that - how about smart lenses recording our lives?  Or smart tattoos?  Maybe that'll be the real role of smart clothing?  There are probably a myriad of ways of constantly monitoring and recording our lives that I haven't thought of in the thirty seconds I gave it.

But there's one aspect that seems antediluvian, retrograde, pre-decimal: The Cutter.

The Cutter is a privileged specialist, a wizard class for the world of 'Zoe chips'.  Only Cutters are able to extract the images; only Cutters have the rights to put together the visual tribute to the late great dearly departed.  Only Cutters have a monopoly over the magic.

This strikes me as a major dropping of the ball, a failure to think through.  We live in a world of increasing democratisation o
f information.  The medium is being put in our hands to broadcast our message, authority is increasingly being questioned.  Maybe you could argue that the world has changed radically in twelve years, and how could they have predicted, (oddly, The Final Cut debuted at the Berlin Film Festival a week after Facebook was founded), but we got rid of the chauffeur, the typist, and the housemaid long before 2004.  Functionality has been flowing towards users for a long time.

In short, there'd be an app for editing the footage of your own life.  And if the makers of the Zoe chips didn't provide it, somebody would.  There'd be too much of a hunger to post video in real time, to manipulate and control, to lay down for posterity a record of your life in real time.


Maybe they didn't see it that way.  Or maybe they saw it and didn't like the questions it threw up.  Some movies move in a zippy enough way for you to forget to ponder the readily ponderables.  But not The Final Cut.  Like, wouldn't all of this data be useful in a court of law?  Or when writing an autobiography (although it would mean we would never have been treated to Jeffery Bernard's delicious letter to the New Statesman in July 1975 stating "I have been commissioned to write an autobiography and I would be grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974.")

However, the real issue for me is that there simply isn't enough hours in the day to review video, if video covered... well, every hour of the day.  We seem perplexed that our technological leaps forward haven't led to any corresponding leaps in productivity.  Hardly bloody surprising when we spend our time tweeting pictures of our dinner, or consuming pictures of other people's dinners.  No time to forge more steel, or whatever it is that keep GDP pointing skyward.

If we were able to have a stream of our own experience on (digital) tap 24/7 then, for me, the real issue is one of addiction to reviewing your own life.  And this really, really does throw up a dystopia, a heroin that makes kitten videos on YouTube seem like Babycham in comparison.  I see a subclass springing up overnight, like mushrooms, winding and rewinding their lives, watching their pasts in slow motion, making the hikikomori look like speed-daters when it comes to interacting with the world.

If The Final Cut had covered that angle then it would have been a braver and, possibly, a more prescient story.

One of the many days that I hope I'm wrong...

Monday, 28 November 2016

One F or two, two

Or The Sorcerers versus Nanny MacPhee.

The other night I had the pleasure of catching The Sorcerers.  Barely long enough to count as a feature - how pleasurable given the number of bloated movies dong the rounds - I had the distinct feeling that I'd seen it before, decades ago.  Like deja vu all over again.

Wikipedia describes it as science fiction/horror and I'm happy with that, as this post doesn't really work without that premise.  And I think we can agree that Nanny MacPhee is fantasy, and children's fantasy at that.

So, they're at the opposite ends of the SFF spectrum.  But, like a Venn diagram, there's a degree of overlap.  Primarily, for my purposes, both stories involve mind control; the conceit being the Sorcerers' fulcrum to the plot, whereas it's incidental to Nanny MacPhee, where it's merely used to bring the errant children to heel by turing them on each other, thus demonstrating Ms MacPhee's power.

What makes The Sorcerers science fiction, not fantasy?  It seems to come down to the eponymous sorcerers being scientists with a clinical white room full of bank of switches and dials controlling some psychedelic mind-bending headwear that Ian Ogilvy is invited to insert himself into.  Quite why he agrees to do so is taken at a gallop by the plot-donkeys, so quickly that you forget to question it.  But it's clearly the product of science, a practical demonstration of a scientific hypothesis, that allows them to control Ogilvy's mind.  So it's science fiction.  QED.

Hold on.  Not so fast.  We're told their scientists, but we see them carrying out no experiments in a formal sense, recording no data.  After locking into Ogilvy's mind through lots of spinning and flashing lights, they control it by sitting around a table, grinning and gurning.  The room of shiny boxes may as well be a wand, or Nanny MacPhee's eyebrow, it's just a device to move the story on: do 'A' and 'X' happens.  Never has Arthur C Clarke's comment that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" been so unwittingly illustrated.

Consider the wand, the traditional tool of fantasy versus a remote control device, like your TV remote, but one that gave you mind control.  That would be a sci-fi trope, right?  What if the remote had no buttons, but was voice activated?  Still sci-fi.  You want those voice activation commands to be very specific, so as to avoid accidental triggering.  Good idea to put them in a special language, like a Hogwarts-stye magic spell.  And what if it were shaped like a simple pointing device, a sort-of stick.  Like a wand.  Still sci-fi?

Or what if all the wands in the fantasy storyverse were replaced with black boxes with dials and switches, would all those fantasy tales suddenly become science fiction?  Or, if wands could have some backstory explaining their construction - more than just Rowling's Olivander's construction methods - with some pseudo-scientific principles, some fancily-monikered theory? 'It looks like a magician's wand, but it uses Avinder's Principle of Universal Mitigation to rearrange the molecules of the liquid', rather than, kazaam, and the water is turned into wine.  Still fantasy?

As for Nanny MacPhee, she doesn't even have a wand.  Her mechanism of choice is just an arch of the eyebrow and, presumably, an internally muttered spell, if it can be called a mechanism at all.  Magic reductio'd to its absurdum.

So is it that sci-fi has an explicable mechanism behind its workings, whereas fantasy is all just, well... magic?  But, hold on.  The science is utterly pseudo science, pure hokum Which we're happy to swallow.  There's nothing in the wand, but there's nothing in the remote control either, except a storyteller is telling us that we should believe that there is.  Perhaps the true difference between fantasy and sci-fi is where the bollocks lies - do you want to believe in magic and fairies, or in science that isn't true?

Is that all there is to it?  A pseudo explanation?  Choose a funny name out the phone book and put 'Principle' after it?  Dress it up in futuristic clothes and avoid tossing any dwarfs and, yes, I think you do have a recipe for turning base fantasy into shiny science fiction.

PS - And don't get me started on where comedy crosses the line into horror - Nanny MacPhee making the kids rub their bruised heads is one thing, but what if she were to make them feel for the ice-pick sticking out of their temple?  I think I'll let somebody else examine the blurring of the two...

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Hail to the Chief... Do we have to?

First Brexit, then the Columbia referendum, now this...

Well, I always suspected that the fact that we're living in the Matrix would only be revealed through a glitch in the program.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Everyone's a hero in their own story (again)

I appreciate that many of these posts are about how story works, why story works, and why it sometimes doesn't, which is as applicable to any genre as science fiction.  But I'm pretty much going to carry on until somebody tells me to stop.

A few days ago our nuclear family unit caught up with a film (fantasy, rather than sci-fi) that's been out since the summer, so forgive me if all this has been written before - there still seems to be room on the internet.  As, unlike, say, meat, films don't go off I rarely feel the need to see a movie when it first appears, being happy to catch up with the cheaper rep performances.  Or even when it appears on TV.  I refuse to be in thrall to marketing wallahs telling me something is 'must-see' here and now.  There's simply too much stuff out there and too few hours in a day.

I've always subscribed to the view that a performance (film, book, TV show, whatever) should make you laugh, cry, scared, come, whatever - any reaction is better than none.  So I suppose the fact that I felt utterly uncomfortable for large parts of this movie - as uncomfortable as I've felt watching any film since The Hunger Games or even the appalling Life is Beautiful - is a form of praise.

However, given that I was feeling uncomfortable over the romanticising of the kidnapping and (non-sexual) grooming of a child, I'm not sure how far that praise can stretch.  Any sense of victim and perpetrator was swept under the carpet, with the kid in question foregoing the desire to escape for befriending her captor like a stray puppy.  Yes, kids, we're talking full-blown Stockholm Syndrome kicking in pretty much before hunger and thirst in a way that I found genuinely creepy.

And the name of the movie?  Steven Spielberg's 'BFG'.

On the way back to the car my twelve-year old and I had a couple of robust discussions.  (One of the best pieces of advice about writing I've seen recently came from a Charlie Brooker article in a recent Guardian interview where he said that Russell T Davies had advised him that conversations tend to be two monologues clashing.  It was that kind of discussion.)  One was about my 'theory' that what we had just watched was Stockholm Syndrome.  The other was about comedy.

As a syndrome is defined as a set of symptoms, I disagreed that I was proposing a theory.  If you have spots and I say you have spots, that's observation.  If I say you have measles, that's a theory.  I was just bundling up what I had seen on screen under a convenient and appropriate umbrella term.  Neither was I saying that either Dahl or Spielberg had set out to make a story about Stockholm Syndrome - that would have been a theory.  What I was saying was that what we saw and heard added up to Patty Hearst-lite.

Indeed, I'm pretty sure that neither Dahl nor Spielberg would agree with my reading, and would probably be slightly appalled.  But, like the Hunger Games before, for me, it all comes down to the lead character's reactions to events failing to convince.  Does she react how you'd expect a kidnap victim to react?  Does she try to escape?  (Well, actually, yes, but half-heartedly.)  Is she terrified?  Fears for her life?  Not sure that comes across.  I wasn't expecting The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but at least I was convinced that Alice Creed was at least inconvenienced.

For me, that's it in a nutshell.  I'm happy to believe in the BFG.  But I'm not happy to believe in a human child reacting like that to the BFG.  And if you lose faith in the hero, who is your stand-in in the story, then you're lost, period.  (It's also why I'm probably the only person in the universe who thinks Divergent is a better story than The Hunger Games whose name isn't listed in the credits; the premise may be even sillier, but at least I can go along with how the characters react to their predicament).

And, again's the pity, that the story could have been easily fixed.  Show me that the orphanage is a horrible place (maybe it goes without saying, but this one seems fairly neglect-free), and it's better to be out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Or put the BFG in a position where he absolutely has to kidnap Sophie, possibly to save her from the murderous giants, where his options reduce to one, and one he takes reluctantly.  But that doesn't happen.  A friendly giant would trust her not to talk, or be believed if she did, and only take her when she blubbed.  In other words, if Sophie forced him into kidnapping her.  All those would work dramatically, but not this.  Perhaps Spielberg was in thrall to Dahl's original?

All this raises two moral side-questions, which I'll ask and then fail to answer.  Firstly, is it alright to be kidnapped by somebody who can offer you a more interesting life than the one you've got?  And, secondly, is it alright to kidnap somebody in order to save them from a worse fate, such as abuse or murder?  I suspect the second is easier than the first.  Feel free to theme a story around those.  Yours for free.

That other argument?  Simply that, when my twelve-year old heard that Life is Beautiful is a comedy set in a concentration camp, he declared that there were subjects that you should not write comedies about.  I, on the other hand, would defend an artist's right to make a comedy about anything, with the caveat that if and when it goes wrong you risk creating a story that is off the scale in terms of being crass and offensive.  Not sure The BFG was in that territory, but it was certainly ill-thought out.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

One F or two?

I've never hidden my preference for science fiction over fantasy.  In fact, I've always found it strange how the two have become cousins, because to me science fiction is a quasi-philosophical activity, social gedankenexperiments that would be impossible in any lab.  And fantasy is, well.. all a bit ridiculous.  Like standing in the dock, ready to defend your public protest on points of principle, and turning around to find your fellow accused has a revolving bow-tie and a plastic flower that squirts water.

Granted, science fiction can rapidly find itself embroiled in silliness; basically anything that would have been portrayed on Sixties television with a rubber suit and lots of arm waving, or portentous dialogue spoken whilst holding a weapon made out of plumbing parts.  But, if it doesn't leave the Ballard, Gibson and Dick end of the spectrum, it doesn't need to go there.  It's just that fantasy starts off in the world of Thring-son-of-Throng-son-of-Thrung-son-of-Thrang-son-of-Threng-of the-Hairybols, and you can't get back to plausibility from there anytime soon.

Yes, I sat through the Lord of the Rings movies ("Nobody tosses a dwarf!"), but mainly because I loved it when I was thirteen.  Harry Potter, too, but being a children's book (and a great one) you could enjoy it as such.  And that, I thought, was the key issue: fantasy was one of those childish things that you leave behind together with colouring books and 'being a racing car'.

But I think there's a more fundamental issue for me.  And it struck home when I saw the following quote, from Jim Kay, brilliant illustrator of a new edition of Potters, which chimed with me like Big Ben chimes with the hours:

"JK Rowling describes the castle as being 'supported by magic' so this gave me the opportunity to bring something different to the architecture.  The odd thing is that it becomes habit to draw architecture to look like it should stand up, and it has taken me a while to 'unlearn' common sense physics and embrace the fantasy elements."

The castle in question is, of course, Hogwarts.  But the more general point is that Kay's Hogwarts doesn't stand up, and neither does a great deal of fantasy.  It doesn't need to, because you can always get out of your hole with a mirror that talks back to you or an enchantment or a potion.  You can cherry pick the rules of the game as you want.  And conveniently forget others - like if the castle stands up without supports, why don't you levitate off the doorstep?

Sure, sci-fi does enough of that.  Faster than light travel, portals, and so forth that conveniently drop you in strange worlds.  But there's a greater sense of working within a consistent set of rules in sci-fi; no privileged magic-user who has a monopoly on bending the principles of physics.  If the storyverse has FTLT then it's available to everybody with the price of a ticket.

There's something about science fiction that restricts, whereas fantasy allows, and that's not necessarily a good thing.  Alec Issigonis, car designer, said something along the lines of anybody can design a large car, but it takes talent to design a small one.  And promptly came up with the Mini.  And it's the same with science fiction.  It sets you parameters to work within and, in doing so, forces you to think.  In sci-fi there's no deus ex machina, no eagle - or bloke in a rubber suit - to grab you by the epaulettes and fly you out of Mordor.



Monday, 3 October 2016

Notes and corrections

Some updates from recent posts:

I'm in two minds about this post
The more I look, the more examples I see, and the more it makes perfect sense: Carl Jung described himself as having two conflicting personalities, no.1 and no.2; and this, in a magazine interview with Gillian Anderson: "Yeah. I am a mix  of normal, safe, quiet, regimented, serious, morally and ethically led – or at least I try to be for the most part.  Then every once in a while – or maybe more than once in a while – there is  a part of me that is incredibly reckless. I think it bubbles underneath all the time..."

I don't want to sound like I'm the only one who can see this, but aren't we all on a spectrum here, guys?  I mean, like, not just the crazies...  We keep being told that there's no 'I' in 'team'.  But there is 'me'.  Or, more to the point, there's a team in me.

Closer to the transom
Following that encouraging response from Asimov's in June I sent off another story.  Which didn't come back in a matter of days.  It's now been with them over three months with complete radio silence.  So I gently prodded to see what's the state of play.  Turns out they're only getting through to stories from May.  My heart sank - it's just queued, circling the drain...

That said, I've looked at the response turnaround times on the Grinder and very few stories get to being more than three months old, so I think I can conclude it's made it past the guardians of the slush pile.  Even then, it's still only a one in twenty hit rate...

Lakeside Circus
Still waiting...

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A Slow Meteorite Night

So, last month, on holiday in Brittany I dimly remember the existence of the Perseid meteorite shower.  Through the power of Google I find that peak activity is due that very night.  This doesn't usually happen, does it?  It's normally the night before.  

And not only that, it isn't going to be an ordinary meteor shower.  It isn't even going to be an M&S meteor shower.  It's going to be a meteor outbreak.

So up I get the family, bleary and stumbly, from their beds and out into the mild clear night air (even the meterology is with us).  And we stare.  And stare.

And, yes, there are a few blink-and-you-miss-it smears of light in the sky.  Real shooting stars.  And sometimes you see them.  And sometimes you miss them.  But nothing like what a lifetime watching the ever-developing art and science of special effects, computer-generated or otherwise, has led me to expect.  I wanted to be, you know, within the spray of a galactic angle-grinder whereas it was more like the gods trying to strike slightly damp matches.

Since then we've spent a dusk bat-watching at Berry Head.  Again, nothing like what CGI-heavy horror films had built me up for.  No showers of creatures tangling in your hair.  A few pipistrelles went that way.  Three or four greater horseshoe bats went that way.  Then our guide thanked us for our time.

Two nocturnal activities which have proved slightly flat.  Two bouts of sky-staring that have led to tired necks and not a great deal more.  Two evenings that have left the optimist in me wondering.  Given that I have plans to travel to the States to see the total eclipse next year (yes, appreciate that it isn't an evening thing, but I am expecting the sky to go dark) I'm left wondering... third time lucky, or do things come in threes?

Friday, 9 September 2016

I'm in two minds about this post

Two recent occurrences, unrelated at first, second and even third glance.  Firstly, I've been reading Jonathan Glover's 'I: the Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity'.  Struggling with, slightly if truth be told, not through any density on the part of either book or myself.  Being a slightly more academic version of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, it keeps generating story ideas in my brain, which tend to shout their presence over the author's voice until they dominate and I have to put the book aside.

The second event was that I shut my finger in a drawer.

As I said, quite unrelated.

Early on in 'I', the idea of a singularity of consciousness is taken as a starting point, as something obvious.  In other words, that there's only one 'I'.  If not by Glover, at least by some big cheeses in the world of deep thinking.  From Rene Descartes ("The first observation I make at this point is that there is a great difference between the mind and the body, inasmuch as the body is by its very nature divisible, while the mind is utterly indivisible") to Erwin Schrodinger ("...the empirical fact that consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in the singular... We are not even able to imagine the plurality of consciousness in one mind.  We can pronounce these words all right, but they are not the description of any thinkable experience").

But here's the thing.  When I shut my finger in the drawer I think I experienced exactly that.  On the one hand (literally) I was shutting the drawer; on the other, I was trying to push the trailing end of a sock back in before the drawer shut.  I am sure, for that instant, my mind was working independently, down two separate tracks.  Two streams of thought.  Two 'I's.  Simultaneously.  Each had its objective, and each wasn't going to let the other get in the way.  The drawer pushing won, to the cost of my finger.  Yes, I shut the drawer on my finger, but my contention is that the 'my' doesn't belong to the 'I'.

Schrodinger's take was that this is an unthinkable experience.  As Glover points out, he said that before any classic split brain experiments had been carried out, but even they only claimed to show such phenomena as showing through in exceptional circumstances.  What I'm saying is that we're all doing it every day, all the time.  It's even in our language: 'I'm in two minds'; 'I can't believe I did that' (different 'I's!) 'Sorry I was miles away', meaning somebody else was in my place.

Like a mirror of Breq in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series, we can be several people in one place, if not one person in several places.  I don't think it's unusual at all and if we wake up and start to look for it we (and here I (we?) really think I (we?) mean 'we', each and every individual 'we') will see it all the time.

I think it explains a lot.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Everyone's a hero in their own story

Contains spoilers

One piece of advice I remember being given when I started writing seriously was to be scrupulous in ensuring your protagonist's actions are driven by character, but when it comes to your antagonist, anything goes.  Action derives from character; how your hero reacts to his predicament is determined by his strengths, weaknesses, foibles, knowledge, superstitions, physical abilities, history, and so forth.  What makes your lemming the one that walks away from the cliff edge?

The antagonist's job is to provide those predicaments; we don't stop to ask for consistency or justification; our focus is on the hero through whose eyes we'll follow the action.  If anything, an antagonist who acts with a cocktail of quasi-omniscience, semi-omnipotence, and unhinged irrationality makes for a pretty good baddie.

The truth is that you have a great deal more wriggle room with your antagonist; he is, after all, the one whose job it is to throw chairs in the way of the hero, but it helps enormously if your antagonist's actions also have some kind of twisted internal logic.  However, all too often, the baddie just seems to be there to give the hero something to push up or show off against, leading to such classics as:

"Do you really expect me to talk?"
"No, Mr Bond, I expect you to DIE."

If that was really Goldfinger's aim then would he really have constructed some homoerotic laser (or, in the book, circular saw)?  No, he would have just shot the bastard there and then, if not earlier.  The whole thing was really for the story's benefit first, and the character's second, if at all.

Let's compare and contrast one recent undeserving sci-if classic - The Hunger Games - with one recent unrecognised classic - Wool by Hugh Howey.  Both are set in a post-apocalyptic America, both with society splintered, albeit with very different levels of awareness of each other.  Both have strong heroines who butt up against the social order itself.

I'm not so interested here in contrasting Katniss with Juliette.  Rather, let's think about how much sense the initiatives engineered by society for keeping them in their place make.  Because, I think, each falls foul of the 'they wouldn't really do that' test, albeit at very different ends of the spectrum, which means that one, but only one, can be rescued via 'would they?'.

Firstly, Wool.  As a preliminary step prior to a preconceived holocaust of the mutually assured destruction-type, the American people take to fifty or so huge silos, buried one hundred and fifty storeys deep.  Over centuries memories of the world-that-was, the other silos even, are lost, except to the controlling elite.  Each silo becomes a self-contained universe with nobody beyond; anybody who says or thinks differently is sent to 'clean' the sensors that give a view of the dead surface in a suit with a deliberately shortened life.

Does it make sense?  Well, it's not the most obvious solution to sedition, but troublemakers need to be got rid of.  I was surprised, given that there are more twists in the story than in the strings of that kite you stuffed to the back of the loft last summer, that the air outside didn't turn out to be breathable, but that being the case, 'cleaning' offers a very visible way of demonstrating the toxicity of the world beyond the silo.

What makes less sense, however, is admitting that there's a world outside without making it an aim to ever leave the silo.  Why give people dreams if you're determined to quash them?  To quote James, If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor.  A nonsense, but a necessary nonsense in order to tell a great story.

I'll take it as read that you know how the Hunger Games works.  Again, the purpose of the Games is to humiliate the twelve remaining districts defeated by The Capitol.   Obviously there's a lot of gladiators in Ancient Rome going on here, both in terms of the political relationship between ruler and slave-states, and the resulting human blood sport.

So, your President Snow's predecessor.  Your blood's up and you want a way to keep your defeated territories under the cosh and on their knees.  Do you invent The Hunger Games?

No.  At least, not as described.

The very last thing you would do is allow resistance to centre on any martyr or hero-figure.  So, forget all those parades and interviews and fancy frocks.  You want to dehumanise, not create a cult of personality.  Remind them that the victor is of a different standing - think of the British in India, or America's relationship with its Native Americans.  A single man - Ghandi - had a lot to do with the ending of the Raj.  When people bay for blood it must be the blood of animals, or at least a lower caste of humans; under no circumstance must they think there but for the grace of god...

As for selecting children, no.  Not out of squeamishness, but because it makes you look weak.  Spartacus was made an example of because he was the strongest the slaves could muster, but still not strong enough for the might of Rome.  That was the message.

A lottery?  No.  Give the districts the pain of selecting their own tributes.  Make them offer up their best, with punishments for the districts with the weakest representatives.  Make the comfort, if not survival, of the district dependent on the Games.  Make the districts themselves snuff out any thoughts of resistance.

If you are going to have a lottery, what about the substitution rule?  Ludicrous.  Districts will either select the best (unlikely in reality given the odds of winning are slight and there doesn't seem to be anything in it for the district itself) or, more probably, some cripple whose family have been persuaded to sacrifice for better rations.  So you're faced with the prospect of the games resembling Todd Hayne's Freaks.  Not pretty.

Getting more food for having more entries in the lottery?  Hello?  The aim is to keep them enfeebled.  If everybody puts in for more food then the odds don't really change.  Ultimately all you've done is give aid and succour to people you're trying to quash and you still get two tributes per district.  Smart.  Not.

The Hunger Games also fails in large part to a question of scale.  Wool's conceit may be nonsensical, but it's nonsensical in a way that chimes with our experience of bureaucracy.  It's the sort of thing governments do.  The Hunger Games is so ill-conceived and on a society-defining scale too, that it topples over on the weight of it's own idiocy.  It is also actually self-defeating, in danger of creating the martyr figure that will bring about the revolution.

Much more seriously, in Wool, once you accept the premise, all the characters act  more consistently and believably and, well... in character than in The Hunger Games.  The Hunger Games exist as an irritant, like pre-holiday jabs.  Nobody suggests rebelling in the face of such evil.  Katniss and the other tributes act throughout as though there's a danger of being knocked out of an inter-schools hockey tournament, not of imminent bloody death.

Katniss is written as an everywoman.  She's us, the character we can empathetically drop into for the ride; so you can't argue the Games are so ingrained in her society they are simply blindly accepted, because we the reader can't accept them so easily.  We can't accept them at face value, so neither should our heroine.

The irritation is that there is a good story trying to get out of The Hunger Games; it's eminently fixable.  Firstly, learn from Spartacus.  Make Katniss the rebel, the troublemaker who needs to be dealt with - her hunting trips beyond the wire give ample reason in a world where people are subjugated through lack of food.  Have her fight against depersonalisation as she becomes a gladiator for others' entertainment.  Put her under duress - most of her actions and decisions actually make more sense - sorry, delete 'more' - if she had to fight to avoid bad things happening to the people she loves.  And don't change the ending - winning, but on her terms.

Oh, and maybe not make the standard of writing that of a hack writer's movie novelisation.

I may even write it myself.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Doctor Who Experience


Unfortunately not involving Malcolm Tucker on guitar with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass.  Playing The Wind Cries Missy, perhaps…

Rather, The Doctor Who Experience is an interactive tourist attraction and museum (many would separate those two concepts but, being a nerd, I don’t see them as mutually exclusive) in Cardiff Bay.

Approaching it, the hanger-like building is shaped like something the architects pulled out of the bin with a deadline looming.  Not unlike the Heart of Gold from Hitchhiker’s Guide; a running shoe for clubfeet.

With a quarter of an hour or so to kill before the timed entrance on our pre-booked tickets we walk straight into the café.  And straight out again.  If I want coffee in a sauna I’d, well, have coffee in a sauna.  So we head around the corner to the ‘World of Boats’ where we have lattes made with UHT milk.  Better view, worse drinks.  You choose; only after millennia of evolution can we cope with such first-world dilemmas.

One positive of the Experience is that only thirty-five may enter every quarter hour.  This is the size of each party that goes through the ‘Experience’.  Which means that you’re never craning over somebody’s shoulder in the museum.

They ask everybody not to say anything about the interactive bit, so I won’t.  But suffice to say that it’s all a bit cheesy, but bearable if you act like a twelve year old, shaky-shaky, flashy-flashy and pointy-pointy through 3D glasses, all delivered with enthusiasm set to medium.

I don’t think I’ve broken any embargos there.

Once you’re experienced, you get spat out into the museum bit.  About which I can say more.  For example, I can tell you that you can dwell, and take photos.

The museum begins, unsurprisingly, in 1963 with newspaper headlines announcing the Kennedy assassination and a display on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  This includes a Stuart Maconie’s documentary about queen of all things that sound like the Aphex Twin before the Aphex Twin was a gleam in Mr Aphex Snr’s eye, Delia Derbyshire.

We would have lingered to watch the whole documentary but for two things: firstly, it wasn’t really set up for watching in its entirety, no seats to encourage you to linger awhile (it’s only ten minutes, but we didn’t realize this at the time); secondly, we expected there’d be more of the same, more interviews on the making-of and other diversions.  But from there on in the museum becomes little more than a collection of sets, props and costumes.

On the lower level there are a couple of Tardis (is that the plural?), a K9, and a green screen where you can be exploited for cash.  On the upper level, mainly costumes, mainly from the modern era, but also a smattering from the old.  An interactive learn-to-walk-like-a-monster thing that occupied the kids for five minutes.  But no clips.  With half a century of archive you’d think we’d get to see some old footage.  But no.  I suspect it’s a question of rights (did I see a BBC logo anywhere other than in old photos?  Whose museum is this?).  Which may also explain why Peter Cushing has been airbrushed completely out of this version of Whovian history.

But here’s the thing, somewhere on the stairs between levels, between Bessie at the bottom and Cybermen suits above, a conceit kicks in.  And this conceit is that Doctor Who is real.  The signage is all about when and where the Doctor encountered this foe or that, as if this were some offshoot of the Imperial War Museum.  There are a number of Daleks with explanation of when and where they fit into the story, but no acknowledgement that one arm ends in a sink plunger.

Unlike, say, the Harry Potter-themed Warner Brothers Studio Tour, which knows that the whole thing is a fiction and balances the making-of with the magic (pun intended) of the story.  With Doctor Who, unless you’re twelve or into cos-play, the insistence that we suspend our disbelief for a museum as we would for a tale gets to be ever so slightly very embarrassingly silly.

It also means that, if they don’t have a prop or costume (which, to be fair, are credited with having been worn by actors and actresses), there’s very little acknowledgement of, say, the Doctor’s assistants.  Yes, there’s a police-procedural-type board with photos, but I would have liked to see a complete list of characters and actors and the years they appeared.  More of an adult overview and less an adolescent showing off his collection.

And then it’s all over very quickly and you’re exiting through the giftshop, as is traditional.

One last nugget, and that is that the translation into Welsh of ‘Half-Faced Man’s balloon’ is covered in one word.  When I see this I feel a wave of paranoia advance.  What does this say about the ancient Welsh language, their culture, their shared history?  Is a half-faced man nothing out of the ordinary in the valleys?  But I soon realise that it was only the word ‘balloon’ that they had translated.  As if summing up the overall approach of only dealing with half the issue, the easy half, the playful, pretend half.  The half that raises the fewest tricky issues…

Monday, 25 July 2016

Beerbelly and grey hair - am I growing dystopian?


I have been having a metaphysical difference of opinion with my children.  When I talk pushing an event or an appointment ‘back’, I mean putting it to a later date.  But to the kids this is bringing something ‘forward’.  They simply don’t understand how forward could ever be back.

Of course, I am the adult and they are children, so I am right and they are wrong.  Quad erat demonstrandum.

But, of course, I think this hides a deeper truth.  I am an adult, so I want to hold back time as hair and flesh go south. I’ve seen things and been around the block.  Hence I don’t want to hurry to the next block in order to see more things.  Whereas they are children, so wish to barrel into the future.

Which, correct me, but isn’t that the very definition of utopia versus dystopia?

This got me thinking.  Maybe utopia is a young man’s (or woman’s) game, whereas dystopia is for those with both the years and the mileage, to paraphrase Professor Henry Jones.  After all, I know Anthony Burgess didn’t publish a Clockwork Orange until he was 45.  Maybe this is just one example of a general principle.

So, in a thoroughly unscientific test, I took the best utopian and dystopian science-fiction from bestsciencefictionbooks.com, and looked up both the years of publication, and the years of the authors’ births:


The Giver – Lois Lowry (born 1937 - published 1993 - age 56)
The Dispossessed – Ursula K LeGuin (1929 - 1974 - age 45)
Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 1953 - age 36)
Looking Backward – Edward Bellamy (1850 - 1888 - age 38)
News from Nowhere – William Morris (1834 - 1890 - age 56)
The Player of Games – Iain Banks (1954 - 1988 - age 34)
The Sunken World – Stanton Arthur Coblentz (1896 - 1948 - age 52)
Ralph 124C41+ - Hugo Gernsback (1884 - 1911 - age 27)
Andromeda – Ivan Yefremov (1908 - 1957 - age 49)
Uglies – Scott Westerfeld (1963 - 2005 - age 42)

Median 43.5, mean 43.5


The Iron Heel – Jack London (1876 - 1908 - age 32)
Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1920 - 1953 - age 33)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Philip K Dick (1928 - 1968 - age 40)
Eight Against Utopia – Douglas R Mason (1918 - 1966  age 48)
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess (1917 - 1962 - age 45)
1984 – George Orwell (1903 - 1949 - age 46)
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1932 - age 38)
Logan’s Run – William F Nolan & George Clayton Johnson (1928/1929 - 1967 - age 38.5)
The Marching Morons – Cyril Kornbluth (1923 - 1951 - age 28)
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins (1962 - 2008 - age 46)

Median 39.25, mean 39.45

Obviously this is about as statistically significant as extrapolating from the voices in your head to the population of the planet, but it’s an intriguing result.  A good spread of ages; both lists have somebody in their late twenties.  But, mainly thanks to a couple of fifty-somethings, it appears that we pass through the dystopian and head towards the utopian.

Let me try and make some sense out of this most dubious of results, if it is a result at all.  So, having been around and seen a lot makes you more optimistic?  Or maybe experience of reality just makes you hanker more for a better world, dream them in greater detail and work out the mechanics?

Naivety correlates with youth.  So, perhaps, it’s naïve to think the world is as bad or paranoid as we think of it.  After all, the vast majority are kind and generous - but they’re not the ones that turn out newsworthy.

Perhaps we are we still getting over the grimness of Grimm and his ilk well into our thirties, repeating their echoes in our work?  Maybe it takes that long to overlay our fairy tale foundations with life’s silver linings?  Really?  I find that hard to believe.

Maybe dystopia is a more grown-up emo thing, when teenage eye-liner and this week’s Joy Division soundalikes no longer satisfy.  At that point we feel a greater urge to pen something akin to an early Cure album than bubblegum pop.  Seriously?

Of course, all this is as much hokum as most sci-fi.  But I’m going to take heart in the results.  Beerbelly and grey hair; I’m growing utopian by the day.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Ender's Game


I appreciate that I’m almost 40 years behind everybody else, but I’ve just finished Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  Yes, it’s a ‘classic’ but, as I’ve said before, there’s so many ‘classics’ out there, not just sci-fi and not just novels, that if you didn’t have some holes in your reading list then I’d worry.

As I sometimes submit to Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and cite this blog on my submissions I’m probably doing myself no favours by posting a review.  Because, I have some concerns - and one major issue - with the book.  Not that it’s not without merits: I liked the point about space not having an up or down, and it made me think how many space battles I’ve seen portrayed have been gravity-affected dogfights with the ground no longer visible.

But my issue?  Not with the language.  It’s a YA book, so I was expecting something more burger and slaw than lobster thermidor.  No, it isn’t Nabokov, but neither is it Enid Blyton in space.

I don’t - as many seem to have - a hang-up with the word ‘buggers’. As an Englishman it’s a curious word.  Yes, it means anal sex, but it’s not what first springs to mind.  It’s, say, what an elderly Yorkshireman says when he’s miles from home without an umbrella and it starts to rain.  And it’s said with resignation under the breath.  No, in calling his aliens ‘buggers’ Card has, as David Brent would say, embarrassed himself there.  (Ditto ‘Dr Device’ - just plain silly).

I could live with the storyline, which was pretty much as linear as one of those highways across the American desert.  Yes, there were hurdles to overcome, but hardly twists.

The pacing?  Well, let’s let it go.  The way the book plods along through the various games, really ends at the end of the penultimate chapter, then outlines a whole new novel-length story in the last chapter.  The last chapter, and not just through the way it zipped through years, was one of the most engaging.  However, it read like a précis of a much richer novel, one where there was a real sense of something strange going on.  Without spoiling, to me Card thought of a really intriguing plot device but then wasn’t sure what to do with it, nor had the authorial horsepower to get any decent mileage out of it.

Is my issue the idea of child soldiers?  This has stuck in the craw of many readers, to judge by goodreads.com reviews.  Yes, given the world we live in today, writing about children being brainwashed and forced to fight is potentially tricky.  But, come on people, this is fantasy.  Go with it.

I have a bigger issue (but it’s still not my key issue) about why they need to be children, anyway.  Yes, it’s explained briefly and unsatisfactorily towards the end; but I don’t remember doing anything other than taking it on trust when I embarked.  It feels like a plot device that should have been rethought after a few beers or a hot bath

No my big hang-up - and we’ve been skirting around the issue for the last couple of paragraphs - is that they’re not children.  Let me repeat that.  They’re not children.  They don’t talk, walk, act or speak like children.  The only - excuse me whilst I repeat that in capitals - ONLY thing that makes them children is that Card says they’re children, and they keep saying that they’re children.  But, apart from being a bit moody and unschooled, they read like adults.

Maybe the argument is that they’re children with adult skills.  If that’s the case, show the contradictions and conflicts.  I think I could have bought them if they’d been adolescents, unable to cope with their super-human (but not supra-human, they’re not superheroes) skills, but not as four-year olds or whatever Ender starts off as.  Again, a germ of an idea, but I suspect a lack of authorial horsepower to get it to fruition.

It’s the classic mistake.  Show don’t tell.  Sometimes we’ve got to do a bit of telling; Basil Exposition has got to keep his plot donkeys exercised on the sands of story to some degree.  Life is full of telling to embed and clarify the showing (think of school).  I have no issue with a bit of telling.  But don’t rely on the telling to do both the heavy lifting and the finessing.  Don’t forget to do the showing or, worse, make your showing fail to back up the telling.  When your showing can’t cash the cheques your telling is writing, then you have a issue.

And that’s my issue with Ender’s Game.

Monday, 27 June 2016

150

Less than a week since Britain, or at least 52% of Britain, made the maddest, saddest decision of my lifetime.

Less than a week since the blackest, bleakest day in our recent history, at least one that didn't involve loss of life.

Yes, Britain is to detach itself from the European Union and do its own thing.  Whatever that is.  Markets have already plunged.  Expect job losses next, and not just amongst evil bankers.  And when the price both on the forecourt and at the Magaluf bar lurch upwards the gormless Mail readers who led this craziness may finally work out that they put their Xs in the wrong box.

There are so many reasons for being baffled by the result.  Not least that history, from wandering the plains trying to find a mastodon for lunch through to our projections of the far future through science fiction have been all about smaller units - family, tribe - coming together into cities, states, corporations and empires.

The reasons are obvious: economies and efficiencies of scale.  As, say, building a dwelling has progressed beyond mud huts and blocks of ice stacked together the technical skills, let alone the heavy lifting, no longer resides in one man, or even a close-knit family.  If you want progress -- better harvests, better homes, longer lives -- then come together in teams, folks.

And with it comes the need to let go of some decision-making and defending-the-realm responsibility.  Let politics, policing and soldiery become professional, so I can get on with writing code or growing GMOs.  (America, you may want to review the background to your right to bear arms before another schoolkid or minority gets wasted; it comes out of the need for a citizen militia after the Revolution, since made redundant by your military-industrial complex and 2.1m armed regulars and reservists, but that's another blue-touch paper of a posting altogether).

In fact, space opera is awash with alliances, empires and federations.  Star Wars has The Empire; Star Trek the United Federation of Planets; Blake's Seven the Terran Federation.  1984 has the world divided into three megalithic nation-states; and even then there's a hint they may be colluding to prolong the war.  You never seem to get spatterings of independent states in our thought-out futures, unless they're in some chain-with-no-name arrangement.  That's not just because it gets hard to write; it's not how we see the future progressing.

And here's an oddity.  Some of these socio-political units have definite, distinct figureheads - The Emperor, or Servalan (who, from memory, seemed to work from home, albeit an ostentatious one, possibly Cheshire).  Others seem leaderless - who's in charge of the United Federation of Planets?  We see lots of statesmen, but there doesn't seem to be a single Putin, Trump or George Washington, to pick three banknote-faces at random.

But in sci-fi the ones with faces always turn out evil (is that right? - I can't think of a disproof, a happy star-cluster led by a benevolent altruist).  The EU's problem may have actually been the polar opposite; it's the fact that we're not sure who the muscles in Brussels really is that makes us distrustful: turns out we'd prefer to stick with people whose faces we recognise, even if the current team are lizard-people in human masks.  (Seriously: look at Cameron and Osborne in HD - that's not flesh.)

However, there's evidence that Britain's decision to say 'no more' to all this joining up of nations is perfectly sane and reasonable and it's our whole direction of travel that's wrong.  That we shouldn't just stop at dismantling Europe but most of our own nation; our countries, counties, even cities.  What we need to get back to is the optimal size of community.

And that's 150.

That's not my view.  It's called Dunbar's number.  And if you're an anthropologist it crops up everywhere.  It's the personal relationships that a human can typically manage and maintain.  It's the size that villages or tribes get to before somebody thinks that a second tribe or village may be a god idea and leads a contingent off over the horizon.  Think of a Roman legion of centurions and the associated upward management structure - it's that kinda number.  WL Gore found that when you had more than 150 people in a building then issues started to crop up as people stopped dealing with each other one-to-one, so they limited their organisational units to 150.

One day we may achieve enlightenment and return to the village.  I foresee a possible - although highly unlikely - future of us living in 150-person units, dealing with our own shit and ignoring everybody else.  It would be a utopia, not because everything would be rosy in the garden, but because at least we'd be in control of the weeds.

If I was brave I would map out this way of life in a sci-fi magnum opus.  But, given the happiness and lack of conflict therein, where would be the fun in that?  Long live The Empire!




Thursday, 16 June 2016

Getting closer to the transom

Did I mention that I have a story that's made it as far as the story-strewn desk of the editor-in-chief of Spark?

Well, in the last day or so I've also had one enter Bill Adler's 'considering-for-publication folder' for the Binge-Watching Cure, and an 'I look forward to your next submission' from Sheila Williams at Asimov's.  I feel I'm getting closer to pitching one over the transom.

But I've had warm leads turn into near misses before and, if that's the case, from one perspective they merely add up to a straightforward rejection delayed.   Rejections that invariably tend to take the form of 'this doesn't fit with us' or 'this isn't right for me'.

Which leaves you wondering what it is that they do want.

Of course - and I've covered this before - the received wisdom is to read the magazines.  And in order to support these laudable concerns I agree.  But to identify the market... well, there are only so many hours in a day, plus work to do, and I'd like time to write too.  Plus the Euros.  Oh, and the Tour de France.  And Pakistan are touring...

My main reason for not slavishly reading the publications I submit to is that my mind is a two-way street and I don't want my story ideas sullied with what I've just read.  My strategy is to surprise, to be distinctly different.  As if to prove my point, try these submission guidelines from Analog: "We have no hard-and-fast editorial guidelines, because science fiction is such a broad field that I don't want to inhibit a new writer's thinking by imposing Thou Shalt Nots. Besides, a really good story can make an editor swallow his preconceived taboos."

Or Fantasy and Science Fiction: "F&SF has no formula for fiction. I am looking for stories that will appeal to science fiction and fantasy readers. You know what kind I'm talking about."

Daily Science Fiction even presents the counter-argument in one breath: "Read, and get a feel for what Daily Science Fiction publishes. We always want new and different work, of course..."

Of course, as long as you're not submitting your space opera to Portable Restroom Operator or Miniature Donkey Talk then rest in the knowledge that a good editor will recognise that breadth in our wonderful genre.  And, as if to prove that point, I stumbled across a new speculative fiction author I really like.

Patricia Highsmith.

Yes, author of Strangers on a Train, the Ripley stories, and a suitcase-full of other taut psychological thrillers (with enough room for a sack of money and maybe a severed limb).  Tucked away in 'Eleven' are some really weird genre-defying vignettes, particularly those involving snails, which aren't crime fiction at all, but portholes on to strange lives.  A man becomes obsessed with snails.  A small boy is driven to protect a terrapin.  A scientist sets out to find a legendary gastropod... and succeeds.  And if they don't fit any particular pigeonhole then they must be ours.

All I need to do right now is not let them influence me too much.