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

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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.

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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

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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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The End of Thrones

Surprise thrones ending

[Spoilers]

Well, well, well! The finish of a certain well-known show certainly seems to have got a lot of people quite exercised!  Me, not quite so much; I have been attempting to cultivate some Buddhist detachment.  Some people, though, have been following the characters and houses in a way usually reserved for football teams.

(I had a quick flash there of a cinematic screening where people group under banners of Lannister, Baratheon etc shouting insults at each other… and a few confused Jon Snow fans mill about on the border between Stark/Targaryen).

The downfall, and the hope, is that the TV series outpaced the books a while ago.  There were some deviations and omissions leading up to that.  George RR Martin has indicated that his fiction will take a different path.  I regard the books as being the “real” Thrones (or rather, the real “Song of Ice and Fire”).

I gather there was a large petition to re-make the ending.  Cue a fair amount of grumbling from my age group about “entitled millennials thinking they can just change what they want.”  I actually reckon that’s a pretty exciting attitude to have, myself, but I’m not so sure about fiction.  You just have to accept that the people writing or producing something may do something you don’t like.  You can pretend otherwise or write your own “alternative” version in your head if you want to.

I compared Thrones to Fullmetal Alchemist in a previous post; that wound up with at least two versions diverging after a certain point, the first being the TV writers’, the later being the author’s (which I liked less, contrary to expectation).  With Thrones, there is the possibility of two or possibly three different versions being made!  The big problem being that by the time GRRM finishes writing, the original cast may be too old or unavailable, and anybody else will likely suffer in comparison.

Was I disappointed in the end?  Yes, but this was largely in keeping with my expectations.  Thrones was at its best when it broke the mould and did what you did not expect; when it was different to other fantasy books.  When the promising young hero gets suddenly cut down in his prime; when the “good guys” decide to fight each other instead of the bad guys; when the idealistic queen’s dragon decides to snack on children.  This disappeared after the divergence point; when Sansa and Theon actually got rescued at the last minute by a hero on a horse, I realised it was becoming more like standard fantasy.

Incidentally, this is one reason I often pull faces when people talk about “character arcs.”  The point of Thrones was that anybody could die or have horrible things happen to them, no matter if they had unfinished business or were only in their “act two.”

So, while being pretty good as standard fantasy goes, the last seasons were not radical.  There being one Dark Lord who, if killed, would end all the Army of Darkness at once was about as fantasy cliché as you can get.

I was surprised at Daenerys going bad, and at Cersei dying in a way that apparently ignored the prophecy.  I didn’t mind the slow ending and wrapping up of the various characters, because I can honestly quite like long epilogues.  In a similar vein, the episode where everyone sat around Winterfell talking was my favourite.

The show also suffered a loss of plausibility; the huge variation in the ability of ballistas to shoot dragons out of the sky, for example.  Although to be fair, GRRM isn’t terribly strong on similar points himself.

What would have worked better?  Well, surprises and cynicism.  A neighbour suggested that the battle of Winterfell should have been lost; the survivors straggle south to find themselves caught between Cersei and the encroaching Winter army.  Then, personally, I would have voted for the humans killing each other and a White Walker sitting on the frost-encrusted Iron Throne while, just perhaps, one or two protagonists flee far south hoping to survive the Ice Age.  That would have been proper Thrones, and a story resonant for our times.

 

 

 

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The October List ***** (Jeffrey Deaver)

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This is a crime book with a difference; it’s written backwards.  Or at least, the chapters are arranged in reverse time order, with the “end” of the story first.  The structure is a little like the film “Memento” in that you see each instalment without knowing what came before it.

There is no plot device like a damaged memory to explain this; the author just decided to do it as a challenge and a curiosity.  He was quite right; this book was the most outright fun that I have read for quite a while.

Without giving too much away, the action takes place in New York.  A man is drawn into helping a woman as she is pursued for the “October List” itself, something her employer apparently possessed that some very, very bad people will do anything to get their hands on.  If she goes to the police, or they catch her, something horrible will happen to someone she loves.  There is only limited time to evade her various pursuers and find what they want…

I almost said this is a book for writers, but this isn’t necessary to enjoy it.  If you are a writer yourself, though, you may enjoy it even more.

The key is to reveal new information which changes your perception of what you already know.  The author is very clever about this, and often outright cheeky.  One fundamental of humour is when your brain changes tack suddenly onto something unexpected, and I often found myself laughing out loud when this happened.  It can be a small thing, or seem almost like cheating, but I still enjoyed it with the author.  It was like someone telling what you know perfectly well is going to be a joke, but it’s a good one and delivered well.

You know what the “final scene” is from the very start, of course.  It’s a cliffhanger and the suspense only increases as you wonder how on Earth it can be resolved.  Which it is.  Brilliantly.

I am told there is severe nastiness in some of Deaver’s other books, but in this one it is only hinted or kept at a distance.  So I would heartily recommend this book, and thank you to Caroline who recommended it to me!

Hive link: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Jeffery-Deaver/The-October-List/15962207

 

 

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