Fifty Shades, a response


Well have been through a few life things that shook me up, perhaps more on that later, but gonna start with a certain famous/infamous franchise.  No, I’m gonna start with a boast: won some money for an erotic story competition.  It was paid in Amazon vouchers but is my first real payment for any kind of writing unless you count some free subscriptions.  I am of course too shy to show it to anyone I know, or to put it on any future résumé as verification would mean they could read it.  But it’s there.

But on to Fifty Shades: I saw the film.  I didn’t really feel the need to read the book, just wanted to get the idea.

First off, good for the author!  Dashing off a novel and making a tonne of cash without artistic pretension, EL James is living the dream and I don’t want to join in any literary snobbery about how well the book may or may not be written.

The film itself… I’m not reviewing it as such.  My main take is that it is a woman’s fantasy film.  The protagonist meets an extremely rich and handsome ethical businessman who is an expert pilot and piano-player.  He falls in love with her because she asks a couple of perceptive and challenging questions in an interview.  He then pursues her in a way that might be creepy and scary in real life.  He turns out to be a dominant sado-masochist, fulfilling the common fantasy (for all sexes) of surrendering control and abdicating decision-making.  I understand the latter part, but I wasn’t able to relate to the rest as it was too gender-specific.  In one of my common tropes, I wondered how it would work if the genders of the protagonists were reversed: could you have a young, beautiful business lady deciding to pluck an inexperienced male graduate student into her world, then shower him with treats and sex?  I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t, or at least be difficult to write (a challenge?)  Gender roles and expectations are too entrenched, maybe even rooted into biology…

Then comes the clever part: the introduction of genuine conflict.  The man is emotionally closed off; can Anastasia save him and enable him to love and be close to her at least some of the time?  The film hints at childhood traumas that had made him this way but never spells them out.  I expect some in the community objected to this equating of kink with pathology, but it might not be that simple.  For example, a friend who does cosplay says that many of the people who do it were bullied, or have problems with shyness; they find adopting a mask and another persona to be liberating.  So there may be a pathology behind the behaviour, but the behaviour itself is not pathological; in fact it may be helpful, almost a kind of drama therapy.

I’ve heard Fifty Shades criticised for not being an accurate portrayal of BDSM relationships.  Not that I know a great deal there, but it seemed pretty hot on issues of informed and withdrawable consent, use of safe words and so on.  As for the rest… is it being edgy in some ways?  Christian Grey was seduced at fifteen by an older woman who used him as a sub for six years, and he initially offers this as an explanation of him being the way he is.  As Anastasia says at one point, this is child abuse.  Then, there is no getting away from the fact that Anastasia is young and inexperienced in comparison to Christian.  She may be an adult, but we cannot pretend that her head isn’t turned and her judgment clouded.  As mentioned, his pursuit of her and later desire to control her (even with consent) could be creepy and dangerous if it happened for real.

However this is all, to some extent, the point of the film.  In a BDSM scenario, the fantasy of coercion and lack of responsibility in someone’s head may be very different to the scrupulously planned and safe reality.  Fifty Shades is a blend of that fantasy with elements of realism.  You suspend some disbelief going in and shouldn’t imagine it’s real any more than a Bond film.

In any case, the book and film have done enormous business and appealed to an awful lot of people.  So worth looking at for that reason, even if you interrogate it a bit afterwards.  Not that I would ever do a thing like that….


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Alien Covenant: *** The watched pot keeps boiling


Manage your expectations.  Go in with low ones and you will enjoy more.

The first Alien movie was, I am told, innovative for being a Haunted House movie in space with a far-above-average monster.  Covenant is then exactly what it is: the fifth (seventh, inclusing spin-offs) sequel where everyone knows the score, following horror movie tropes and remixing previous plots.  The dominant trope is “ensemble characters go into the forest and get killed off, usually while you’re screaming at them not to be so stupid,” plus something I’ll have in the mild spoilers section.

As my friend remarked early on, “this lot are more hopeless than the last ones!”  Sure enough, they refuse to do anything like actually look at the planet before they land there.  But the plot is also increasingly nonsensical and SF-silly, with robots growing hair and nobody remarking on non-human civilisations.  Ridley Scott is never less than a good director, but he simply cannot tell a good script from a bad one.

Oddly, I found myself missing some of the philosophical pretension from the previous installment.  But there was one thing that really annoyed me: the captain of the colony ship declaring that people were biased against him for being a man of faith.  Things must have changed in the future; atheists are one of the few groups considered utterly unelectable to President or Prime Minister.  Yet another advantaged majority protrays itself as threatened and persecuted.

Mild/early Spoilers:

The real innovation of the film is its central badness being a villain rather than the monsters.  And the villain is indeed superb in many ways, although much of the villainy comes from the repeated times he is spared, helped or trusted with insufficient reason.  I can’t deny this built up a wonderful head of hatred for him, but it also felt unsatisfying in some ways.

Covenant also pulls an Alien3 in that you find all but one of the plucky survivors from the previous film have died off-camera in the interval.  Another thing that feels a bit lazy.

My favourite film of the franchise remains, of course, Aliens.  It was smart, pacey, gritty,  and innovative in having an early female action heroine with a mother/daughter love interest (I have a theory that it may be the most influential feminist film of all time, in that lots of young men with little interest in gender politics will have cheered Sigourney Weaver leading a group of men and then kicking ass with a big gun).  The sequel was just as good as the original, in fact better in my book.  Influences from both the two films have run through all subsequent sequels.  I do find myself wishing that James Cameron had come back rather than Ridley Scott…. but then, as with Terminator, he knows when it’s time to bow out of a franchise.

So, Convenant is a good ol’ potboiler but nothing great.

AND, for those of you who would like my narrative response to Promethues, read “Epimetheus” on this website!

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Time Travel Pitfalls Part 3: Forget all the rules if you’ve got character

The thing was, I loved the animated film of the Flashpoint Paradox which I have just been slagging off.  Despite my problems with the main plot, it was great to see very different versions of well-known characters in dystopian situations.  I was well into the stakes at the end, and breathed a sigh of relief when it was all stopped from happening at all.

Which is kind of the whole point.  Time travel, unless you have something genuinely original to do with it, is just a tool.  It is a plot device to make conflict, character, and colour happen in your sci-fi.

Put the drama first.  Time travel is the means, not the end.  Any resolution using time travel has to be involved with the human factor (eg Looper; the end is rooted in character development, and time paradox is just what he uses to make it happen).

It’s like a laser gun.  Simply having a story that says “wow, this guy uses a laser gun!” is going to need more to actually make it worthwhile, maybe even if you are the first person ever to write about one.  Maybe the story focuses on trying on to build the gun in time to stop the monster, or on the implications of its invention.  Maybe someone is resisting using the weapon, but finally bends and shoots the monster in the last act.  Perhaps there were hints of mystery about a character, and them suddenly producing a laser is a big reveal that invites further questions.  But the laser itself is not the only point of interest.

A story needing interest beyond the gadgets is hardly a revelation; but time travel is such a McGuffin that it offers some specific pitfalls.


Thanks to: Terry, Sandy, John, and the rest of the writing group

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The Pitfalls of Writing Time Travel, Part 2

2) Don’t get bogged down in the rules

The finest films to feature time travel avoid detail about how it works.  Take Terminator: when Kyle Reese is asked about the time machine, he snaps “I didn’t build the thing!”

You need some rules, sure.  You need to keep it so that death means something and the adventures have a purpose.  But don’t get too hung up on them, because…

…I have spent a lot of time thinking about this.  I have read and watched an awful lot of fictional time travel, including a role-playing game system that tried very hard to nail down workable and watertight rules.  I am an allegedly smart guy with a physics degree, and I have come to the conclusion that an entirely self-consistent system of time travel is an impossibility—at least, not without making a total nonsense about our ideas of narrative, identity and free will (the “multiple universe” interpretation).  I smacked my forehead when I realised this because, duh, violating causality is the very definition of time travel.

Come up with something that works for your story, stick to it but don’t get too fancy or convoluted because if you do, it’s going to break down.

A friend has pointed out something else: whereas most sci-fi hardware has a starting point for your imagination, time travel does not.  A space ship can be inspired by a sea ship or an aircraft; a laser gun is a gun that shoots a beam instead of bullets; a robot can be extrapolated from existing machinery.  But a machine that moves you through the fourth dimension has no real-world ancestor.  Therefore it can be as original, or as bizarre and anachronistic, as you want.  Writers have played with this; from a phone in a microwave through hot tubs and, of course, the blue Police Box!


2b) Critics: you might not be as smart as you think you are

[Terminator 1-2 spoilers]

I have been pretty stupid myself, on occasion.  I have done things like clicking on links for “10 of the worst movie plot holes….” although at least I usually remember to wipe my tracking cookies afterwards.

If I had a pound for every time someone has said something like “Ah, but John Connor could not have existed to send his father back in time to become his father!” then I could afford a pretty nice meal.  (This sort of thing is called a “bootstrap future” by the way, after the proverbial boy who pulls himself out of the swamp by tugging on his own boot straps).  In Terminator, the paradox was used correctly.  It added interest and poignancy, but was not the main point or drama of the ending.

It’s time travel.  It’s inconsistent by definition, and who knows how it would work if it was real?  Accept it if you want to enjoy the film, but don’t accept half of it then moan about the other half.  Unless you’re me.


2c) Put a bit of effort in what rules you do have, don’t let them be an Eleventh Commandment

[“The Flash” in various media spoilers]

So, The Flash yields to the temptation to go back in time and save his mother’s life.  Only when he returns to the present, it’s different.  In fact, it rapidly becomes clear that the entire world is rapidly going to hell.  In the end, his mother has to die to save the world.

However, there is no plausible link as to why saving one woman’s life would cause Superman to be imprisoned, Bruce Wayne to die, Amazons and Atlanteans to embark on a globe-shattering war, etc.  It’s all because our hero dared to tamper with the way things are Meant to Be.  But this doesn’t happen when a villain jumps through time, oh no; they don’t accidentally make the world into a paradise.  In fact, in some versions, it was a time-travelling villain who killed Flash’s mother in the first place.

This is a fairly common trope; someone makes a change in the past that seems positive, but it leads to something else bad or worse.  It’s an interesting concept, and links in with the classic ends/means thing.  It also, when done well, meshes with the reality of very few things ever being purely good or purely bad, of moral compromise, and the whole complexity of everything.  But it can be done badly, and it can be done too often.  It often seems as if the writer is applying a general “conservation of suffering” or at worst a divine “do not tamper with fate!” edict.

The first famous instance of a tiny change in the past causing massive change in the future is “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, from 1952.  It has got a boost from chaos theory and its famous butterfly wing.


2d) It Is Written… Not!

A reversal of the above is where a character knows the future, but finds it completely impossible to change whatever they do.  In some cases this is entirely plausible; how many people fail to change government policy, for example?  But in others, it doesn’t seem that credible.  ‘Oh dear, I’m going to bet on the wrong horse and lose my money?  Well you can’t change the future, I suppose I had better get on and fill that betting slip out then.’

So what would happen if you tried to fill in the winning horse instead?  Would your pen spontaneously combust?  Would the ink magically re-arrange itself?  Would the universe blow up or extra-temporal monsters appear to threaten you?  There’s got to be some kind of mechanism that doesn’t make a nonsense of the character’s agency.


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The pitfalls of writing time travel (part one)

Time travel is a wondrous gift that keeps giving to science fiction.  It has become as important a staple as the intelligent machine or the spacecraft.  This is how it should be.  As Terry Pratchett said, if only one person had ever been allowed to write time travel and everyone else would be accused of copying, then the idea would have stopped with HG Wells’ “The Time Machine” and we would never have had Dr Who, to name just one.

But, like so many things that began life as a classic New Idea, it can fall into cliché, and of course even a great idea can be done badly.

Not to mention that even great new ideas might not be as new as one thinks, at first.  When I was writing Pendragon’s Shadow, I looked up who was the first to do Arthurian time travel.  It was Mark Twain, in 1889.  Wikipedia says the first time travel story was by Alexander Veltman in 1836 but even that is not as it appears.  When you go back as far as you care to mention and find myths and legends that involve Prophecy, what is that but an instance of information travelling backwards in time?  And information, of course, is the important part of most things.

At the start of every cliché there is a classic.  Sometimes you might get away with it if you re-do them very well, but they’re best avoided.  And having time travel in your story will offer you temptations, and traps.  So here are what I reckon are the things to avoid:


1) The Deus Ex Machina must Die.  Or at least shrink.

[Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure spoilers]

If it’s a joke, that’s fine.  Bill and Ted are trapped in a dungeon awaiting a horrible fate.  However, they decide that when they escape from this, they will go back in time and plant a key for themselves so they can get out.  They guess where they put it and, lo and behold, there is the key!  They let themselves out and, presumably, later zip back in time to put it there.  The logic problems are part of the humour.

On the other hand, a number of more serious fictions have heroes escaping by the assistance of their future selves.  The first few times you encounter this, you may be entertained at the concept.  By the tenth time you may be feeling less charitable and wondering why you should be concerned about heroes when supernatural aid may pull them out of any predicament.  It may even seem like—gasp—lazy writing.

Likewise, some stories use time travel to magically make everything alright at the end, all those horrible things didn’t happen after all.  For an alternate “what if” story then it might be a case of “easy come, easy go.”  But otherwise one might wonder what was the point of the story if the slate can just get wiped clean like that.  In narrative terms, it can rate near to “it was only a dream!”

Classic era Dr Who maintained iron discipline on this.  Whenever the TARDIS landed somewhere, you were part of events and could not mess about with the timestream until the story was over.  There is no zipping back an hour to yell “duck!” at the right moment, or to tip yourself off about the Daleks’ Master Plan and save all the messing about in episode two.

The new series have not stuck to this, and suffered as a result.

I’m not objecting to averting the Norman invasion or whatever.  I’m only objecting to interfering with your own time-line whenever things go wrong.  Unless it’s “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Groundhog Day” where repeated attempts are the point and stakes remain.


1b) Keep some stakes serious

A loved hero or a hated villain has died.  You cheer, or cry, or think wistfully about how you enjoyed that character.  But fear not!  Thanks to the miracle of time travel, that death can be averted.  Or they can have time travelled to the future before they died and are still around doing their thing for as long as you want.  If they die before they’re supposed to then you can just say they were a “time echo” or something.

Made a terrible mistake?  Never mind, you can zip back and correct it (or maybe not, see the upcoming 2).

Also… a drama has been engaging you with its crises, disasters, character and conflicts, then it is suddenly resolved by a time machine.  You may feel a bit cheated.


Part Two of our warnings about time travel shall be coming soon in… where else… The Future!

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A rant about the film “Arrival”

Don’t let me spoil this film for you.  It is very well done and enjoyable, especially the first encounter with the aliens.  Most people won’t have a problem with the ending, or if they do, it won’t be as extreme as mine.  And even I am glad I saw it, because I quite enjoy ranting and nitpicking.

My friend C indicates she might have a problem because she remembers Amy Adams [lead actress] from the Muppets movie and associates her with them.  If somebody has not done a video mash-up of scientists attempting to communicate with Muppets from outer space, they should get on that.

This links to the upcoming epic blog post about time travel.  COMPLETE SPOILERS from this point on:

arrival_hkFor starters, an essential part of the story wasn’t well told.  The film showed a lot of what I assumed were flashbacks to how the lead character had married, got divorced, and had a daughter who died young of an incurable illness.  In fact they were flash-forwards; all this happens after the end of the main story.  I had been thinking that she looked a bit young, but then she would not be the only Hollywood character to play older, or look improbably good for her age.  Which of course is how it is in the “future” segments.

Then, if she was having premonitions, she was presumably spending her life under the impression that she was psychic, or mentally ill, and keeping it quiet.  Which might make an interesting subject for a film in its own right; it didn’t really work as part of one.  It’s hard to see how it would not shape her whole character, make her into a passive figure that expects and embraces tragedy.  “Oh, that’s the house of my visions where my child dies!  I have to buy it immediately!”

It turns out that she has or receives the power to see through time, and that she uses this to save the day by bringing back information from the future where the day has already been saved.  This kind of works as  Deus Ex Machina, albeit it’s a cliché (Bootstrap Future) unworthy of the film up to that point.  A gubbin should be rooted in character development or conflict, though.  Here, that seems to be the discovery that the bitter (dead child) comes along with the sweet (saving the day).  It’s still not a decision or development, though.  The price simply comes attached to the Deus Ex.

But what doesn’t work is, why on earth doesn’t she change it?  Perhaps from her point of view, the “future memories” of her daughter are so strong that she felt she already existed, and the joys the child had were so great as to make her life worthwhile despite its tragic end.  Which is a perfectly fine attitude to have if your child has already lived and died.  To marry and conceive the child knowing their fate in advance is quite another thing.

(Perhaps I have a little sympathy here; how can you write a situation where knowing the future does not change it?)

I am, of course, taking the attitude of the child’s father, who divorced the mother when she told him the child’s fate (after the birth) and, knowing what was coming, was unable to deal with it.  Whatever the mother’s philosophical views, to know and not tell the prospective father is very wrong.

The mother was also dropping hints to the child about her eventual fate.  I doubt that will make the book of good parenting somehow.

This situation itself is a pretty rich one.  It could make a subject for a film in its own right.  You wouldn’t even need time travel; you could just have a child who was told “Oh yes, I knew that I carried the gene for galloping incurable leukaemia.  No, I didn’t tell your father.  But I knew that even though you’d die in your teens, the fun you had on the way and the joy you brought to me would make it worthwhile.  I suppose we could have had the foetuses tested until we had one without the disease, but that just wouldn’t have been you!”  This is, of course, a very touchy subject for all kinds of personal, political and religious reasons.  But that also makes the subject rich,  exploring science and how we perceive reality.

So, does seeing a future comes with the price of being unable to change it?  That could be like some presentations of schizophrenia, believing you have no agency of your own and are at the mercy of other fates.  Which would be a synergy with the self-fulfilling prophecies many of us fall prey to in our lives.  Again possibly worth doing.  But this is never revealed in Arrival.

But instead we have the intriguing premise of learning to communicate and deal with aliens, which turns out to be because they perceive time differently, and then a Deus Ex brings up things that might be worth exploring, but which aren’t, and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

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Why I am no longer fond of this time of year

First off, the stressed people.  Even a fair number of the shoppers in town are looking grim and harried, or at least flustered.  The roads are full with drivers squinting into the gloom through their smeared windscreens and swearing at the jams.  The postie and the couriers look like they haven’t slept in weeks.

Second, Christmas makes demands of you.  On top of all the normal ones, which just get trickier.  I have trouble coping with normal life, let alone feeling like I should be doing decorations, cards, presents, and interacting with a lot of relationships at once.  Back when I had to arrange work leave, cat cover and endure travel on Hell-trains, it was even worse.

Third, so many of the seasonal stories, music and so forth have an imperative: You Must Be Jolly And Conform.  Some of them go so far as to hint at the personal shortcomings of people who don’t, or hint at what will happen to them as a result.  Of which the worst prospect is inevitable conversion.

So I am taking inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death: fill up the castle storerooms, seal the gates, and wait for it to be over.  I am, at least at the moment, not bothered in the slightest by the prospect of the day being without human company.  I’ll welcome the peace.  That may change, but I’m not whingeing about it yet.

I used to like Christmas, and perhaps one day I will again.  But not this year.

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