Covid Misthinking

The first post for a long time.  Lockdown is not being kind to me, but others have it far worse.

This may hardly be a positive post, but it’s what I think and feel.

At the time of writing, Britain is passing 100,000 deaths from Covid, my cousin being one.  Some countries have it much better and show it needn’t be so bad; as far as comparable countries go, we are among the worst.  A Finnish friend is visiting friends and relatives and having days out; they have had less than 700 deaths.

The big thing that jumps out at me is not something terribly new or that I didn’t know anyway: people en masse just aren’t terribly rational or benevolent, and this country is going the wrong way.

If you were to knock over a candle and flames started to lick up around it, most of us would stamp on the fire straight away.  But if the fire was called “Covid” then it seems we would declare it too small to matter, ignore it until it had eaten half the sofa, then if we were lucky enough to beat it back, we would stop before it was out because it was now once again too small to do any harm.

In the same way, if our street was on fire, it seems some of us would be complaining about the fire brigade making so much noise and splashing water around, and wish they would go away.

I’m guilty of some misapprehensions myself.  I thought for a while there may be a compromise between economics, freedom and controlling the virus (albeit that our government was erring on the mercenary side).  Circumstances are now showing that beating the virus down is better for business and liberty as well as lives.  An irony is that a selfish but smart person would support the same virus policy as a selfless one.

Contagions spread.  It’s what they do.  If we do not want a few more hundred thousand dead and the NHS overwhelmed, we shall have to stop the virus at some level.  It makes sense to stop it at a low level where contact tracing can be focused and only those exposed need isolate.  Or even, being an island, to eliminate and keep it out.

We have seen a huge amount of wishful thinking.  It has ranged from “The virus won’t spread in Britain like it did in Italy, it will bounce off our stiff upper lips” through “hydroxychloroquine is great!” to “The second wave won’t kill anyone, it’s just healthy young folk getting it.”

Not to mention the huge range of scientific and statistical fallacies and manipulations.  Including by government.

It is clear that tackling Covid well requires a well informed collective effort.  Authoritarian countries can impose this but democratic ones rely on trust, competence and community spirit.  We are failing on all of those fronts.

Individualist culture is a problem.  In this situation, it is not possible to risk just your own life.  Does freedom mean freedom to do severe harm to others?  In the Blitz I have not heard of people turning on their lights and opening curtains, insisting it was their essential personal liberty and they didn’t believe in aeroplanes anyway.

Extreme conspiracy theorists have become much less tolerant of me, and vice versa.  It seems to have cost at least one longstanding friendship. 

Now if one were to say that politicians are generally less than honest, media biased and selective, and that many people hold deep misapprehensions about things, it would be nothing less than the truth.  I can understand being sceptical about events happening far away in war zones where information is scarce and always comes through people with an agenda.  But to say “A huge number of the people I used to pass on the street are involved in a conspiracy to falsify fundamental facts, but I know better!” is monumental hubris at best, a deep solipsism at worst.

How the wishful thinking came about is something of a puzzle.  If our ancestors had been prone to ignoring the hungry sabre-tooth behind a bush because it would be more convenient if it wasn’t there, evolution would have weeded out the trait pretty quickly.  But I suppose that our brains work fairly well for concrete, immediate threats.  Anything beyond what you would need as a hunter-gatherer in a little tribe takes effort and understanding.  We should all work on that.

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Lockdown Autism Blog

You might think, from the stereotypes (and bear in mind I’m new) that lockdown might be kind to someone with Asperger-variety autism; that we prefer our own company, our own environment, and communicating through technology anyway.

Apparently not.  At least in my case, it seems that I might be an extrovert who has limited social abilities and tolerance.  No-one said this was going to be easy!

I expect a lot of people had the “is this really happening?” kind of feeling early on, followed by the sinking feeling that it was going to be bad.  I’m off work, and get severe depression.  The possibility that the this is only a reaction to autism that I hadn’t known how to handle, holds out hope.  I had been making progress, getting out more, and was looking forward to a course on living with autism.  Then, just about everything was cancelled.

I almost wrote something catastrophic like “my house became my solitary cell” there.  Of course, it was nothing so dramatic or horrible.  I am very aware that I am well off in many ways, but just because someone else has it worse, that doesn’t mean you are not suffering yourself, or that you don’t have a vulnerability or lack of reserves.

It wasn’t so bad at first.  I could go out to walk along the sea front, sit on a bench and write until the supermarket was quiet.  Then that became against the rules.  I got (more) sick and tired of walking the same streets around where I live.

One thing I was expecting, but not so quickly and extreme, was that I started forgetting how to talk and respond to other people.  They say what we call “senility” is often a lack of social contact rather than dementia.  I got rapid onset.  Oddly enough, it seems to have reversed a bit since.  But then the memory problems came with it; the highlight was walking out of Morrisons without paying.  Fortunately, the guard was understanding and knew it was an honest mistake.  Just as fortunately, I didn’t realise what I’d done until after that became apparent.

Going out is especially difficult right now.  It’s the lack of clarity and consistency.  You can’t come within two metres of someone but, if the aisle is less wide than that, can you pass someone quickly with your face turned away?  If someone comes inside your space then do you tell them off, report them, or just ignore it and stew afterwards?  What if one assistant walks past you, then one further down tells you off for moving to do the same?

Anxiety grew.  The writing group had kept going as a group video call.  Just a one-on-one counselling session by video was hard enough; picking up social cues on a stuttery screen and finding conversation gaps to speak in was difficult.  Trying to divide my attention between people in a group, cope with people I sometimes find difficult, and being unable talk quietly to your neighbour brought on what I think was a kind of panic attack.  I have avoided the groups since, but my creativity dried up anyway.

The physical things started as well.  I’ve always been prone to muscle spasms and pains of varying kinds.  My shoulder cramped.  My mouse arm ached.  Then my Achilles tendons swelled up and hurt.  My back, which I had been expecting to go first, was in fact the last thing to start bothering me.

I realised fast that I wouldn’t be writing that new novel, or even submitting the ones I’ve finished.  I wouldn’t be doing the online exercise classes, or even keeping up with my therapeutic exercises.  My ability to read a book or watch something on telly deteriorated to a few minutes.  It rapidly became clear that the best I could hope for most days was to shower and eat something.

When I started feeling angry at my cats and they stopped giving me joy, I knew it was time to go back on the anti-depressants.  They come with some side-effects I’m not enjoying, but they are starting to help.  I’m writing this, after all.

Computer games and smoking have stopped me going mad.  I don’t like the smoking, it scares me, but sometimes it seems you have to choose between something that might kill you later and something that makes life bearable right now.

One of the worst things may be a little political, but I’ll say it anyway: the sense that so much of this could have been avoided, or be over by now, and I can’t do anything about it.

Is life getting back toward normal?  Not really.  Having a social bubble with a friend is incredibly good, but I still miss the “inessential” quality-of-life things.  It will be a long time before I can get my grouchy cat to a vet, have my feet or the aching muscles seen to, take the laptop to a coffee shop, etc.   Individually none of them are life threatening, but taken together, the issues are crushing.

Just before this started, I read “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver, a ghost story where (slight spoiler) the protagonist ends up alone in a cabin during the long Arctic night.  However bright the sun, this is the image I keep coming back to.

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The importance of both: Star Trek: Picard **** The Mandalorian *****

There is a heavy responsibility involved in working on the big franchises that begin with the word “Star.”  On the one hand, there are an enormous number of people who are going to watch what you do anyway… at first.  On the other, they aren’t shy about saying when they don’t like it—and if you don’t deliver, they will indeed desert the franchise.

I did indeed leave “Star Trek” for quite a while.  Now there is the seies “Picard,” where the eponymous Starfleet captain returns to a harder and more adult universe.

One of the core concepts of the original series and The Next Generation was that it should show humanity at its best.  Conflict within the crew was minimal; mostly it was well-intentioned, competent people dealing with things professionally.  Whereas the modern trend is definitely for dark, harsh stories and concepts; with its creator dead, Star Trek has mostly joined that.  At first, it seems that Picard has embraced this too.  The eponymous Jean-Luc, famous for his fortitude and rectitude, has grown old and ill.  He resigned from Starfleet after they became cynical, and its officers swear at him.  He is passes the time before his coming demise quietly on a vineyard, bedevilled by regrets.

Then someone with a connection to a lost friend needs his help, he returns to the fray and the consequences of the past…

I went on a roller-coaster of emotions over the initial episodes.  Besides my own expectations and baggage with the franchise, I found myself yearning for the more noble world of the past.  These days everything is dark, all the characters have conflict (often taken beyond a joke).  The old ST optimism is now the novel and the unusual.  But then I saw how Picard himself embodied that old ideal: he will not compromise his morals, no matter how quixotic it has become.

The acting from all involved is top-notch, the characters are superbly drawn.  Yet, they inhabit a plot that is clichéd and holed.  Starfleet Security is infiltrated/corrupt?  When is it not? (Why do they even bother having it?)  A self-fulfilling prophecy about inevitable conflict between AI and organic?  Check.  (Like time travel, this may be seen as a staple theme, but it has been done so often and so badly recently that it should be regarded as a poison chalice unless you have a startlingly original take).  Then it ends with a big dose of over-indulgence and a reversal so they can have another season.  Will it be worth it…?

But still, this series is a success.  It had me cheering for the man who always does the right thing in a hard and unforgiving universe… and wins anyway.

(Oh, and Seven of Nine is back looking even better than she used to.)

The Mandalorian *****

Some people have taken to referring to  the Mandalorian creators as “The Saviours of Star Wars.”  Indeed, watching this show had me feeling like I’d come home to proper SW.

Their big advantage is this: they started with a created universe, but a blank slate of what to do with it.  They weren’t told “Bring back this character, that character, do something with them even if their stories were wrapped up, never mind consistency, raise the stakes to at least double what they were last film.”

Instead, we start with one bounty hunter (not Bobba Fett) in a world that’s just as we imagined it—shortly after Return of the Jedi, there is a big lawless vacuum in most places with some fragments of the Empire knocking about.  It’s on a human scale.  Nobody involved has seen a Jedi or Sith, they don’t believe in the Force or even know what it looks like.  In short, it’s more Han Solo than Anakin Skywalker.  It sticks to the established lore in all ways but one (whether Mandalorians can remove their helmets) but then again, that’s explicable if they want to.  Perhaps they returned to “old ways” as a reaction to their Diaspora.  Besides, it’s in keeping with Episodes V and VI so it feels right.

 This show also goes back to basics in the best way: Lucas was inspired by the Japanese Samurai TV shows (jidaigeki… notice a syllable?)  These, of course, interconvert well with Westerns (Yojimbo/Fistfull of Dollars etc).  Thus, we have an initially episodic “story of the week” before threads start interweaving towards the end.  Our dour hero, badass but fallible, does his job until something (now something of an internet meme) manages to reach an inconvenient spot of humanity and brings more and more complications…

A shout out to the casting: alongside some relative unknowns, there are an awful lot of famous and cult heroes and heroines in the end credits, even if just for voice.

We end up with an excellent show that goes back to the right basics.

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What the lockdown is telling me about my new self

Not that it’s a new self as such, but more the perspective I’m gaining.

The biggest thing is that I’m not so much of an introvert as I thought.  The very difference isn’t what I used to think, either.  An extrovert is not so much someone who loves company and an introvert one who dislikes it (although that often goes together).  It’s more a question of where you get your energy and motivation from.  An introvert’s motivation is internal, they get up in the morning and get straight to it.  An extrovert needs other people.  This can shed some interesting new light; when someone comes into your office and asks you to explain how to do the same thing on the computer that you’ve already explained ten times before, it’s not that they’re stupid  They need the human contact, by any means necessary.

I’ve known for a long time that I am limited by motivation and tolerance more than I am limited by time.  Given that I’m unemployed, some folk might be puzzled why I don’t have all my DIY projects done, all paperwork cleared, the garden wonderful etc not to mention more potential writing projects completed and submitted.  I envy those folk their energy.

A key feature of autism, and mine in particular, is repetitive and restrictive patterns of behaviour.  For me, it doesn’t manifest the way you might think.  My problem is that I tend to only establish bad routines.  I don’t multi-task well.  Things get lost from my memory along the way, or my mind drifts.  I miss the bleedin’ obvious.  Sometimes it only takes a few words from someone to state that obvious to sort out something I’ve been struggling with for ages.

I am often told “get yourself out, you’ll feel better.’  Most of the time, being fortunate in my friends, they aren’t just after company themselves.  Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they’re wrong.  Going out if I don’t feel like it can make me feel a lot worse; the loneliest place to be can be a crowd.  At least these days I am a lot more prepared to say no, or to retreat from something if it becomes overwhelming.  If necessary I now have a much better “excuse” if one is needed.

But the truth is that I need company.  The deterioration across the board I’m seeing during the isolation is proof of that.  I might not have been getting a great deal of company before that, it may be that I do need a lot more time to myself than most people, but some is vital.  Without it, I’m going downhill.  What’s more, it seems that despite the stereotype that Aspergers makes you better with tech than people, video calls aren’t cutting it.  It seems I’m unable to handle a video conference with multiple people; my attention simply doesn’t split that well, the already difficult social cues and conversation gaps are that much harder, anxiety skyrockets.

The best analogy I can come up with is someone with a wide-spectrum food allergy; they need nutrition, but it has to be exactly the right small amounts of the correct foods, or they starve and get deficiency diseases.  Too much or the wrong food, they get sick as well, possibly developing a powerful aversion to something that didn’t agree with them.  Or, if they don’t eat something for a long time, they can lose the ability to digest it.

For me, that food is other people.  A difficult job at the best of times and while the virus rages, it seems I shall just have to tighten my belt and hope that I can recover at the end of it.

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Update on Diagnosis and entering a minority status…

Apologies for the long radio silence.  Winter is a worse time than normal for me.  No Cv-19 diagnosis involved here I hasten to add, not on a personal or immediate level at least.  But it’s not helping.

Yes, to follow on from my previous post, I was diagnosed before Christmas as having what used to be known as Asperger’s syndrome.  I think it’s now ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) without learning disabilities.

The difference, while not miraculous, is significant.  I used to think of myself as being someone with some kind of moral failing (in the sense of it being “my fault”) or curse that meant I couldn’t get along or succeed.  Now I see myself as being someone who is different, living in a society made by and for neurotypical people, and who has done pretty well considering.  There is also hope that my depression might not be innate but a reaction to the autism problems, and could potentially be got rid of by tackling them.

On a side note, it’s interesting how I might now have a minority status.  When it was suggested I apply for a writing award for minority groups, my first reaction was “I’m not ill enough for that!”  So far as I know, I didn’t have an aversion to the idea of needing particular attention, but I felt that other people would need the platform more than me.  Whether that’s being patronising or overly self-effacing I’m not sure.

I have also met the concept of applying a label (“neurotypical”) to a majority of other people and attributing a lot of my problems to it.  This feels a strange inversion, not least because I thought of myself as being majority until recently.  I have read or heard a lot of stuff that seems to imply, whether it means to or not, that I share the guilt and need to bear the sins of other people who are white/straight/male or whatever.  I reacted fairly strongly against that.  As such, I’m going to try avoiding any general blame.  After all, most of the problems I have would be remedied or reduced by normal decency, compassion, honesty and consideration.

What I will say is this: that modern society seems to be embracing appearances and social ability without a sense of perspective.  It’s a bit like judging a book by its cover: we all know the cover matters, and of course one should try and get as good a cover as possible, but it seems that we keep forgetting that you shouldn’t judge by the cover (even as we do).  This goes for everything from job interviews to dating or even book submission letters.  Another part of it seems to rely on word of mouth and networking to fill in gaps of what people need to know.  This is the impression I get; it often feels like the cool kids are the ones who somehow know what band is hot or where the best bar is or outfit faux pas… and of course, I’m not a cool kid.

Then, of course, came Covid-19.  It’s teaching me that I’m not so much of an introvert as I thought.  More will come on that later…


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Would having Autism turn me into a hero?

This week, I should finish an assessment to see whether I have autism or not.  This could be a big thing on its own, but more important is what difference it might make to my internal story.  What if I had something that explained my difficulties, meant that I no longer thought of myself as a failure but maybe even as someone who had done pretty well considering?

They say that every man is the hero of his own story; that outside of a few moustache-twirling fictional villains, everyone thinks that they are in fact the good guy, or at least that they’re someone doing their best in an imperfect world.  For those of us with low self esteem, though, this can be a difficult proposition.

Let’s look at some common story tropes.  The hero is generally someone who starts out with little, and rises in spite of the odds beings stacked against them.  William Wallace in Braveheart is shown to be quite happy as just a villager until he is forced to become a war leader.  Against him are sneering Kings and noblemen who were born with power and privilege but who still want more. In The Illusionist, a poor stage magician goes up against a spoilt prince who believes he can take what—or who—he wants (that film also features one of the all time great rent-a-villains from Rufus Sewell).

Another common trope is the wastrel.  Take Gattaca: despite having a heart condition, the hero impersonates someone genetically engineered to be perfect, using incredible effort and motivation to succeed.  His fake genetic supplies come from a wastrel: a genetically engineered “valid” who didn’t exert himself, became a drunk, and got paralysed in an accident that was his fault.  While not a villain, this character is not shown to be heroic or sympathetic.  Heroes are people who rise despite adversity and only fall briefly towards the end of the second act.  If you sink below your starting point you are at best a supporting character or comedy relief.

My internal narrative is a lot closer to the wastrel.  I was born a member of almost every privileged majority (and some minorities) going.  I had a strong academic ability.  There are some flaws and difficulties, but nothing that other people haven’t overcome to succeed brilliantly, or so it seems.  Not me, though.  I have struggled to find jobs or relationships, and the ones I have, fall apart.  I lose contact with friends and family members.  I struggle with some of the basic things of life and living independently.  I get bullied.  After burning out of my last job and relationship breaking up I have spent a great length of time single, unemployed, drinking and smoking far more than is good for me.  I don’t even know how long exactly, as I can’t bear to look up the year it happened.

Be aware when people say things like “X years ago I was in a horrible mess and despairing, I had this terrible disadvantage, but today I have a wonderful job, partner and children, there is hope” it often isn’t helpful to people like myself.  No matter how well meant, it is still implying that the job/partner/children are necessary to happiness.  None of those seem likely to happen for me; I don’t even want at least one of them.  I also blame myself for not having had a similar turnaround.  I think something like “Well this guy had depression worse than mine but still got a girlfriend in less than half the time I’ve been single, I must be a terrible person.”

But that’s not the point.  I should not be judging myself against other people.  This is my story we’re talking about here.  In Star Wars terms: a Sith wants to beat their opponent, a Jedi takes their satisfaction from being good at using what they have and cultivating inner peace.  Science seems to bear this out when it comes to motivation amongst athletes: there are those who wish to master their discipline, and those who want to win.  I’ll give you one guess which type tends to use drugs.

Now, it seems I might have a chance to turn my narrative around: I may have had autism all this time.

Autism is a spectrum; nobody has 0% autism in the same way nobody has 0% schizophrenia.  But there are degrees.  It could be that my social tolerance expires without warning for a reason other than self absorption.  It could be that I can’t hear against background noise for a reason other than laziness.  I might misread social conventions or signals for a reason other than just being a weirdo.

In short: I might be like the hero of Kung Fu Hustle who (spoiler alert!) turns out to have had a blockage in his chi flow all his life, rendering him a weak comedy character until it is corrected.  Not that I’m counting on becoming a master of the Buddhist Palm or anything; but I would no longer be a wastrel, I would be a valiant underdog.  Which is a role that our society loves; sometimes it’s funny watching every politician or movement try to portray themselves as such.

The diagnosis might be negative, of course.  Which would force me to become a little more enlightened again: I would have to be more Jedi.  I should not judge myself against other people, the standards of an often unenlightened society, or medical records.  I am myself; I have my own standards, I can learn to manage my unique characteristics and relationships better.

Every person should be the hero of their own story.  Unless you genuinely enjoy moustache-twirling villainy, of course.

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Payoff for the Reader (Starve Acre ***, The Second Sleep **)

Re: Starve Acre (radio play of novel), AM Hurley ***

The Second Sleep (novel), Robert Harris **

I am not a “pure literature” type of reader.  I put value on more than (basic) plot, character, and language.  I love well constructed new worlds and intellectual curiosity, but I can also love a good scary story.  In each case, the author has to do more than just construct a character arc and describe it; they need a story that pays a dividend in its own right.

There is such a thing as retroactively deciding whether you have enjoyed a book or not.  Imagine a detective story.  You like reading it, you scratch your head over the seemingly inexplicable murder, construct theories, exclaim in confusion as new evidence contradicts everything before.  Finally the detective calls everyone surviving together in a room, sits them down and says “You know what?  I haven’t got a clue what happened!”  The End.  Now, you may have thought you were enjoying the book up until that point; now, you wish you hadn’t bothered.  Whereas if there was a brilliant denouement, you would simply confirm that you had enjoyed it.

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Done by BBC radio for Halloween, Starve Acre by AM Hurley is a scary story referencing classics.  A couple live in a big house next to a an ill-omened field.  They lost their child under tragic circumstances; now the wife is hosting a séance to contact the boy’s spirit, while the man is excavating the cursed ground… you may not get ingredients much more standard than this, but the right hands can still do a lot with them.

The plot payoffs of a scary story are a little different to those of, say, a detective one.  It doesn’t have to make rational sense; in fact, the very build-up of irrationality can be the point!  However, there are still mistakes it can make.  Acre has excellent atmosphere, writing and so forth but falls foul of two things all too common in scary story attempts.

Inexplicable, moronic or out-of-character behaviour: This happens a great deal in real life but, as has been said so many times before, “fiction has to make sense.”  Sometimes it is possible to channel a real-world ignorance into a supernatural metaphor.  Perhaps there might be a very real psychological reason that will be revealed later on.  Not here, so far as I can tell.

Cheating about information supplied to the reader: Much of Acre’s supposed payoff hinges on the slow revealing of an old legend.  We spend the book in a close third-person point of view, privy to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.  However, it is revealed at the end that he has known the details of this legend all along.  As we have been in his head, and this knowledge makes his past behaviour even more bizarre and nonsensical, this feels fraudulent.

Put together, the two flaws did not entirely make me feel I had wasted my time listening, because the rest was good.  But the end was still a huge let-down.

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When it comes to “The Second Sleep,” I had high hopes as I have really enjoyed Robert Harris’s previous books.  He does research, plot twists and reveals very well.  Even with his Cicero trilogy, where I knew the end, the level of detail and realisation made it fun.

The year is 1468.  A young priest rides to a small, remote village to bury an old priest.  But everything is not as it seems…

If you have read any reviews of this book, you will probably already know the big twist.  I will not say it here, even though it arrives by page 22 and so is probably fair spoilerage.

Sadly, that early reveal is, so far as I can tell, the only twist worth having in this story.  There are some minor revelations after that, and I suppose the evocation of a pre-industrial society isn’t bad, but that isn’t why I picked up the book.  As for the characters, they simply seem to sleep-walk along a path where the end result is obvious.  I can only imagine that most of them do this out of a curiosity that simply cannot be denied; I hope this does not occur in the reader because, if it does, they are going to be disappointed.



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Doing Politics in Fiction


So… I gather there’s a lot happening politically at the moment.  Just a feeling I get.

When I do engage with it, there’s a lot I want to say and get off my chest.  But doing it well so other people take some notice, and friends with different opinions don’t get annoyed, is pretty difficult.

Whatever the art of making political posts or blogs is, I haven’t got it.  Even when you figure in my low social media prominence, most things I might say about politics or philosophy tend to sink like a stone, even more so than normal posts!  No matter how devastatingly insightful I might think they are.

From what I can gather, in a slightly facetious way, the successful posts tend to be “knee-jerk” ones with a catchy picture or headline, mostly on the lines of “ain’t this situation/this person awful?”  Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, duh.  But then again, simple knee-jerk responses are a big reason that we’ve ended up in this mess.

I would love to write essays on things, in fact I have, but they don’t do much better.

So, how about putting what I want to say into a story?

Problem is, there are big pitfalls here as well.  The biggest one being that a political diatribe that has squeezed itself into a dress with “I’m a story, honest!” printed all over it might not fool people, and can annoy them.  Even people who agree with your point may well not like being preached at when they were hoping for some entertainment.  Being “on the nose” or obvious about a message is not considered good form.

Which is not to say that pointed stories can’t work, of course—but they need to be well done, relevant and already have a head of goodwill towards the cause or the author.  George Orwell or Terry Pratchett could do politics very well, but notice that the more recent author was less direct.

I’ve had the misfortune to read a number of book attempts by people trying to make a point (at least one of which was mine…)  I don’t normally like being unpleasant to amateur writing but, for the most part, they were awful.  There are three main pitfalls that they fall into, even if the writing is good:


– Assuming that other people will think like the author: eg one story hinged on a revelation about the Iraq war coming to the reader’s notice.  This idea and its evidence had been freely available in real life for a long time, anyone likely to believe or be swayed knew it already, and there has been no popular revolution.


-Assuming other people believe the same as the author: eg another story casually had a protagonist drop into the office where the government controls what goes in every paper, TV programme or website in the country.  There are circumstances where this could work.  In this case, it was dropped in as casually as another author might have a car driving down a road.  The author is entitled to their beliefs, of course, but they should be aware that not everyone else shares them.


-The “if I write it, it will be real” thing.  If my book had people turning into zombies because of eating GM food that doesn’t mean it’s a danger in real life, nor will it convince people that GM zombies are a threat if they weren’t that way inclined already.

Genre fiction has a big advantage here: if a normal-world issue reappears as a conflict between aliens or medieval kings, it already has a layer of insulation against being seen as on-the-nose, or getting accused of insensitivity.  I may not be a fan of the new Battlestar Galactica but it did some fine thought-provocation when the humans resorted to using suicide bombing against an overwhelming occupying force of androids.

On the other hand, that distance can stop people getting the metaphor at all, and you have to be aware of that.  I once wrote what I thought was an overly obvious metaphor for the banking crisis; of quite a few intelligent and educated people, none of them ever got it.  They kept telling me that the ending didn’t make sense; my cries of “but that’s exactly what we did in reality!” fell on uncomprehending ears.  After all, fiction has to make more sense.

The sad truth is that most people aren’t that interested or engaged with politics or philosophy except to confirm what they already think, and you’re unlikely to change that.

But there is good news.  I wish I could remember who told me it, but it is very true, and it is this: that your beliefs and ideas are going to come through in what you write whether you want them to or not.  So, if you tell a good story with fertile ground, then what you want to say will happen in a more subtle fashion without any deliberate effort on your part.


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Annoying fails of science fiction writing part 1: the Bozo Team (“Another life” **, “Nightflyers” *

Yup, there are some attacks of lazy writing that just keep reappearing and spoiling things.another-life-1

Poor Katee Sackhoff.  She is a good actor, if a little typecast into Science Fiction (not that I see anything wrong with that, but I’m sure she’s versatile).  In “Another Life,” a series made for Netflix, she plays the captain of a spaceship with gusto.  She is a big, strong, alpha female attempting to carry out a difficult and dangerous mission against the odds so she can get back to her husband and child.  It’s a nuanced performance, with tenderness as well as ass-kicking, and the script is smart enough to show patience and restraint as possibly being more important than courage.  On the other hand, there is possibly some exploitation in having her wander about in her underwear for quite so long after being revived from suspended animation.

The plot of both this column’s reviewed series are similar to recent films such as Arrival and Annihilation as well as to each other.  In each case, the survival of the human race may well depend on finding and communicating with an alien presence.  A ship is sent to catch an alien ship or find an alien ship’s origin.

And they both have the same problem: the crew of elite astronauts picked for a vital mission upon which the fate of humanity may well depend are, in fact, a bunch of bozos you wouldn’t trust to take out your rubbish bin.

In Another Life, the majority of the crew are twenty-something mouth breathers, one of whom was picked for her social media presence, another for political connections, and their former captain is a violent and reckless narcissist.  Poor Captain Nico is the only competent adult on board.

Nightflyers - Season 1

In Nightflyers, it is even worse.  The ship has a xenophobic crew under an agoraphobic captain.  Communicating with the aliens will depend on a psionic who has been kept imprisoned in a small room since birth because they are seen as monsters, and he’s a perverted misogynist.  The science team features a biologist who thinks humans are a disease deserving of extinction, and a leader who lies to his friends the instant something goes slightly awry.  Honestly, I’m surprised they made it out of orbit.

Don’t get me started on Prometheus, Interstellar or Alien:Covenant…

Writing realistic astronaut characters who act with professionalism has been a problem at the opposite extreme.  In 2001, Dave Bowman is modelled on Neil Armstrong—a man who was almost pathologically calm under the most extreme pressure.  The film came in for some criticism for this, but it’s more realistic.  As for Another Life/Nightflyers, credibility is completely out of the window.

Nightflyers has “from George RR Martin” over it in huge letters.  I sincerely hope he had nothing to do with the screenplay or TV treatment.

So, I haven’t gone beyond episode 1 of either series.  I suppose it’s hard to be original, but their enthusiastic embrace of cliché and unrealism seems beyond a joke, and Katee Sackhof in her underwear can’t rescue it.

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Atlas Shrugged (film, **) : Nefarious Architects and Preaching Politics

Atlas Shrugged 71qkhBm+z9L

Forget about the Illuminati, Majestic-12 or the Lizard people: if you want to know the real architects of why the world is the way it is, you should be aware of Ayn Rand, the coincidentally named RAND Corporation, and the Koch brothers.

If you want to know why people looting shops in a flooded New Orleans were being shot before there was any effort made to provide them with an alternate source of food or water, look at the Rands.  As for the Koch brothers, they are the Dr Frankensteins behind the monster Donald Trump.  They have possibly spent over a billion dollars on politics, mostly through a shadowy web of think tanks and such.

Not that many people have heard of Ayn Rand.  However, she and her philosophy are enormously influential, especially amongst people at the highest levels of power in America.  You might describe her views as extreme laissez-faire capitalism: the only function of government is to protect individual rights.  These are negative rights, i.e. your right not to have someone take your property.  They are not positive rights, such as a right to fair treatment or having clean air to breathe.

Let us take her views on charitable giving: in public, she said “if you want to do it, nobody will stop you.”  In private, her letters make it clear that she regarded altruism as actively immoral.

But I should not rant too much: apart from anything else, I think it is quite likely she had a mental difference, and was possibly disturbed by her childhood as ex-bourgeousie in the Soviet Union.  (Also, a prime thinker of the RAND corporation who developed models on how people interact was influenced by his paranoia.  Don’t believe the film A Beautiful Mind about how nice he was).

Ayn Rand wrote several fiction books and plays.  They have a cult following, and often tend to expound her philosophy.  One of the famous ones is Atlas Shrugged.  As John Rogers quipped, “There are two books that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged.  One is a childish fantasy…. leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world.  The other, of course, involves orcs.’

A film version of Atlas languished in development hell for a long time before eventually being made, I gather, with the help of some generous donations from Rand admirers.  Having no intention of reading what I am told is a long and turgid book, I decided to watch the film.  I wanted to make up my own mind.  Rand’s fiction has generally been panned, but I suspect that this is partly due to its unpopular political content.  I also believe one should be exposed to the arguments of “the other side” because how can you counter them otherwise?  How will you know they don’t have a point?

So: I plunged into Ayn Rand’s worldview.  This is a place where super-rich magnates are an unjustly persecuted minority, having invariably created the source of their wealth from scratch before jealous people try to take it from them.  Where anyone proposing regulation or charity is doing so as a mask for their own nefarious schemes (a little bit of selfishness, but mostly they have no discernible motive beyond spoiling human progress).  Where the equivalent of the American Congress is hopelessly socialist.

The film gets two stars because it makes the best fist of this that it can.  Kudos goes to the lead actors who do a great job of either being hissably slimy, or (the protagonists) heroic but modest people who are just trying to do their jobs as well as they can in the face of constant sabotage.  It is only occasionally that they slip up and say things like “But can’t people see charity is unfair?  What’s wrong with people these days?”

The most uncomfortable thing wasn’t the politics of it; it was that I have done much the same thing (politically reversed) in my own writing (primarily Space Expectations, although I was following the example of a certain Charles Dickens).  It’s one thing to have tracts of exposition about philosophy or politics.  But the other big thing is that when you’re writing a book, you can of course make events confirm your world view.  A class of person can be uniformly good or bad.  Groups with the wrong views fail, those with the correct ones, win.  Now that I’m on the wrong side of it, I see it as rather childish and unfair.

So, I’m glad I saw the film, and I even slightly enjoyed it.  But I won’t recommend it, and I shall try to be more subtle myself in future!

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