A Rant about the Arrival film [Spoilers after intro paras]

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:

For 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.

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 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 a Deus Ex Machina. 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.

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.

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.

[Not sure if these problems presented in the same way in the original short story, of course]

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Sadly Predictable

In 1929, the Wall Street Crash happened. Its effects were felt all over the world. Times became hard, or harder. When people become stressed they become more extreme politically, more insular. They tend to think in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms. They punished whatever government or system they had and instead they turned to “strong” men who promised them simple answers to their problems and gave them someone to blame and to hate. Within seven years we had Mussolini, Franco, and a certain German dictator whose name begins with H.

Thank goodness it isn’t quite that bad this time around, at least not yet. Our practice of democracy remains flawed, but hasn’t collapsed. Trump is a borderline fascist but still subject to some checks and balances. The far right is significant in Europe, but not in power. Although times are hard and our finances look ridiculously bad, we have not had currency collapse.

But if we are to arrest the rot, we are really going to have to get a bit smarter. To quote a computer game character “Who are you, who do not know your own history?” Because that is the only way we will be able to stop repeating it. It is tragic that we did not try voting for enlightened socialism or green politics instead of the old-fashioned nationalist.

It’s not just us little voters who should take note. Insofar as there is an “Establishment” that has been shaping the world and its nations, this is their mess; they have lost as much as Trump has won (assuming he isn’t one of them, of course). If the 1% had not become stupid and greedy, if they had not expected everyone else to pay for their failure while dominating mainstream politicians and media, people might not have turned to the xenophobic. But there’s more than enough blame if we’re throwing it; after all, most of us went along with it.

PREACHY PARAGRAPH

All is not lost. No matter how bad things are, they could always be worse, and there is always a way to improve or resist, even in a small way. Don’t bust a gut trying to save the world unless you are a saint, but don’t give the word up for lost. Just think and try to act in ways that make the world a better place, even in small ways.

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Brexit, Art and Science

So, what about art and science in the referendum? And how on earth would I categorise this post? Mind you, it’s my firm belief that a lot of the world would be better if these things did mix more.

The other week in a writing group, someone turned out to be a Brexiter. Good on her for breaking the mold and for being honest and brave, but it did feel as if she had suddenly yelled for Sunderland in the middle of a Middlesbrough crowd. Of course we were a bit nicer than that, but I could feel some folk holding themselves back from weighing into a political argument.

The whole referendum business has hardly been enlightening. Both sides have manifested a lot of aggro, a lot of distortion and exaggeration, and continued ill-feeling after the result. I suspect that both the official campaigns did more driving people over to the other side than persuading people to their own.

Well, damn good for our writing group lady for being different and brave enough to say it, even if I disagree. But it did make me wonder: would people with differing politics feel welcome amongst us? Are they here already and some of them are keeping their views quiet? Have they been put off? Or are right-wingers just naturally bigots without imaginations? (Joking.)

Let’s face it, us creative types tend to be liberal lefties. Also, at a time when the traditional left and right have fractured pretty much down the middle, my friends from the writing groups were overwhelmingly for Remain. You can probably guess what my “well-known social interaction site beginning with F” is like; when I do get a challenging opinion, it’s more likely to come from further to the left or be about conspiracy theories. You may have heard people lamenting about how the internet feed us news that confirms and feeds our existing prejudices and clannishness; in fact I think it was the internet itself that told me that and is busily confirming it.

I mean, why is “artist” almost synonymous with “leftie” anyway? That seems to persist in places outside the North-East too, that aren’t generally Labour anyway. We take it for granted, like we assume that armed forces tend to be more right-wing. I suppose the armed forces automatically do their best to instil patriotism, although it still puzzles me why that is assumed to be inherently right-leaning. The rest of it… I suppose that the forces tend to have fit healthy people in a rigid ranked system based largely on ability with some elements of class, and people tend to absorb and generalise those values. Sadly, some less enlightened views have been persisting there as well.

As an aside (I love asides!) the American armed forces are in many respects the most socialist organisation in the country. The highest rank earns only about 13 times more than the lowest, rather than 100 times. There is free medical care, childcare, subsidised accommodation and generous pensions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._uniformed_services_pay_grades

But why does Art/Creative tend to be left? Some of it might be situation. Given that a lot of artists make very little money and depend on grants, benefits or low-end jobs, they feel the sharp end, and might remember that if they do make it beg (although a lot of people who become super-rich abruptly start objecting to sharing it by taxes). That might not apply to hobbyists so much though.

Here comes my article from New Scientist: research has apparently shown differing characteristics between conservatives and liberals in that conservatives have a stronger and more sensitive “disgust” response. They are more likely to view something done by someone else as being objectionable, even when it isn’t directly affecting them. Whereas a creative, on the other hand, spends a lot of time thinking into the heads of other people, seeking out new sensations and stimuli, imagining scenarios that might push an emotion to the extreme. They could be inherently less likely to condemn something different without making an effort to understand.

(There are exceptions, of course. HP Lovecraft based a highly successful horror career on his fear and repulsion of “The Other” although sadly it led him into racism for a while, and a major award no longer bears his image. Memo to self: do a blog post sometime about when art should or should not be rejected because of its politics or its creator).

So we have working theories about the social and economic faces of your traditional left/right. But one of the whole points about the referendum thing is how it has broken down things we took as read. The North East of Britain (with the honourable exception of my adopted city Newcastle) is Labour heartland, but voted Leave. Scotland is generally socialist as well, but voted Remain. The Right split in half and got nasty with itself, as is its wont. All of which hammers home the shortcomings of a “winner takes all/first-past-the-post” voting system.

I’m interested in how the major political parties may or may not split. Labour looks like its MPs and Councillors are divided into Blairites and Socialists, whereas its voters seem split between Nationalist and Internationalist. If the party split, the voters would be left with no clear choice, and there would be a highly unstable electoral situation. (Note that if the party did split along the same lines as its voters, one wing should really NOT call themselves “National Socialists!”)

It’s worth mentioning how Neal Stephenson imagined the globalised future in “The Diamond Age.” He thought that nationality would become almost completely independent of actual geography or space in general; a city might be in what used to be China but have enclaves that were British, Turkish or Zulu, and these citizens would remain largely under their own law wherever they went. This seems a pretty good prediction in many ways; you have huge populations of foreign nationals working all over the world, and often treated very differently and subject to different laws then the people a couple of metres away (this more often works in the favour of Anglophones and Europeans).

One does of course wonder whether anything one country or even Europe as a whole might do could fight the tide of Globalisation.

Immigration is a big thing. We might consider that a fair amount of immigration, whether migrant or refugee, is being driven by the Greenhouse Effect already. In the long term, as temperatures rise and weather patterns shift, a lot of the globe will become very hard for humans to survive in, let alone build prosperous societies. In fact, the whole planet will likely become unable to support its current population. I will have to stop considering this for the moment or I will wind up moving to a survivalist bunker in Greenland.

Pulling back to the short term and what can be faced… I reckon New Scientist, which is normally my single most trusted and opinion-forming magazine, put a foot wrong here. They ran an editorial in favour of staying in Europe (fair enough; after all, a lot of our science funding comes from there and things like CERN would be impossible without it) and also a big section about the benefit of free population movement. This article went far farther into Economics than they usually do. It mentioned GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which is a dodgy and contested measure at the best of times, and especially since the big Crash, one might rightly conclude that economists know nothing. I only skip-read it but so far as I know it never discussed how we might move from a state of ever-growing population and economy to one of sustainable stability. As has been said, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” That is not an exclusive “or” by the way.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23030680-700-the-truth-about-migration-how-it-will-reshape-our-world/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23030681-100-the-truth-about-migration-rich-countries-need-immigrants/

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/399387-anyone-who-believes-in-indefinite-growth-in-anything-physical-on

But let’s end on perhaps the most important note, and a more positive one even if it’s a little patronising to say it out loud. Always remember that the other side are people too. Even if their views go beyond what you might think are acceptable, they are human beings who are probably doing their best to do what they think is right, even if that’s fatally deluded. Universal compassion for people; you know it makes sense.

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Farewell to Martyn

At the end of November, I lost one of my best friends. I am going to force myself to write about the loss, and him.

Martyn Paul Jackson was an amazing man. One wonders just what he might have achieved if he had not contracted ME as a young man at university. He was a scholar, a rocker, a writer, a cricketer, a journalist, a keen amateur politician. He still managed to do a great deal even afterwards.

As for the disease… he did not let it define him, or stop him. But it was a permanent, unwelcome presence, and one can hardly talk about him without it; he would not want us to, because he was an activist for ME causes as well. You can call it Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Myalgic Encephalomyelopathy (ME). In the early stages, when he found himself becoming thin, excessively pale and having trouble with bright sunlight, he joked that he might be turning into a vampire (and was planning an article for Fortean Times on that subject).

I was an Occupational Therapist for ten years, and I like to think I got fairly good at telling when someone was genuinely ill and when they weren’t. With Martyn, I never had a doubt. Towards the end he was underweight, bone density dangerously low, teeth rotting, intestines bleeding, heartbeat irregular—and those were just the objectively verifiable things. I suppose that there is no way to prove someone is in severe pain, and I doubt Martyn would have consented to trying more than the very narrow range of foods he could tolerate so that people could see his guts explode, but still… it beggars belief that there are still doctors and scientists out there who claim it is a mental illness.

The most poisonous part of this misapprehension is that it breaks down the trust between doctor and patient. Martyn even once had to consent to surgery to prove that he did not have Crohn’s disease. The only hospital he said actually helped him closed down its programme, the consultant retired and it seemed from that point forward that no one person ever had a handle on his health. The heart person knew something about his heart, but not his guts; the gut person knew about his guts but not his bones, the bones person knew about his bones but not his heart, and so forth. At the time of his death from heart failure, the last thing his GP had said, when asked about it, was that they were just going to have to wait for the consultant to write back. He died before the letter arrived.

Nor was the health service geared up for treating chronic problems; the physiotherapist could work on his shoulders for a few weeks but if there was no miraculous cure in that time then bad luck, you are on your own while they deteriorate. Likewise they seem incapable of dealing with individuals; a valuable anti-fungal drug was removed in a blanket ban for causing liver problems, even though Martyn’s liver was one of the few bits that was functioning properly.

It is hard not to become negative or bitter about such things; I haven’t managed it, and in all honesty, neither did Martyn. He did not get the best out of the health service, but all the same, it failed him. That should not be brushed under the carpet.

Martyn died of Arrythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia, or ARVD. I honestly do not know whether that was related to the ME, but were it not for that, I am sure it would have been detected and treated. In that sense, the disease killed him.

But he lived before he died, and I had the privilege to know him. We met at the film classes of Dr Gail-Nina Anderson, soon realised we had interests in common, and fell in. Martyn had the gift of making new friends, and I think we complemented each other well. I am quite shy and withdrawn, even though I do not always seem it; I tend to isolation and depression. Martyn was a warrior against such things, and did not let them beat him. He was the one with ME, but he dragged me out of the house to go to gigs and films. He spotted events and planned for them. He remembered names and faces, he made more friends when we went out. I provided lifts, company, and help when needed—which was sometimes a bit rarer than was comfortable. Martyn was never shy about using “carer goes free” opportunities, but only rarely allowed me to carry his bag or anything. It could sometimes be a little embarrassing!

He managed his illness very well as far as things under his control went. He knew how much activity he could stand, and planned accordingly. He knew when he would suffer for a larger degree of exertion, such as a convention or a big concert, and accepted the cost afterwards. He knew that he could get down stairs, but not up more than a few. The Tuesday before he died, we were out listening to a reading of MR James Ghost stories. He was tired walking back to the car; on Sunday, he was dead.

The oddest thing about his illness, which so far as I know was completely unique, was his allergy to digital media and lcd/plasma screens. A DVD would give him a splitting headache, but if transferred to a VHS tape and played on the same cathode-ray TV, he was fine. Being a scientist by nature, I spent a lot of effort trying to figure this out. Thanks are due to Remap and the local engineering group, Makerspace. No thanks to the general march of technology. Trying to conduct a life where you cannot use modern telecommunications equipment, and where you are limited to an ancient blackberry for email and web browsing, can become very difficult. It also showed how hard it can be to keep old equipment running; not so much from wear and tear, but because transmissions and technical standards change. I dread getting so old that I cannot keep up with computers.

Martyn was creative; he came up with the idea for my first novel in a long time, Space Expectations, and would no doubt have co-written it had his illness not limited him. One of my regrets will always be whether I could or should have done more or better by way of selling it to agents, or as an ebook.

He was also an incredible fan-boy, sometimes to an almost annoying extent. He collected memorabilia and signatures, was a member of many fan clubs, attended conventions, and it seemed he could tell you the name of the second assistant cameraman on the third episode of Dr Who from 1977 (then produce a signed picture of him he’d collected from a talk on how the production went). What he didn’t know about Clint Eastward or Thin Lizzy probably wasn’t worth knowing. Perhaps this was because some of the other outlets his life might have had were limited, but it would be wrong to dismiss fandom as just being something for ill or frustrated people. But it is unbearably sad when you are sorting through all his memorabilia and collectibles, all of which took effort to acquire and were appreciated, but many of which are now just junk and clutter.

We had a lot of fun—concerts, conventions, a road trip to a writing festival in Oxford, setting the world to rights, watching a reviewing films or laughing over old TV. The notorious worst-ever Dr Who story can be a joy when you are taking the mick out of it with a friend.

Now, he is gone. There were so many people his life had touched at the funeral and who will miss him. I cannot imagine what it was like for his parents. He has left a void. I still see something and think “I must tell Martyn about that!” or “he’s going to be… oh.” It is hardly news to most of us that life is unfair. We all know that people can die young or have lives blighted by illness. But when it happens to people close to you, it all comes home to you over again and when the anger goes, there is just the sadness. Martyn will never see Spiderman appear with the Avengers, or know how Thrones ends.

I am not religious and do not believe in an afterlife, but I take comfort that time is an illusion. Seen from an extra dimension, a life is like a sculpture or a book; all its good moments are still there, forever. Somewhere, a young Martyn is still enjoying a pint at the cricket match. With 1970’s poodle hair. Somewhere, he is still rocking out to Alice Cooper and forgetting the illness.

RIP, Martyn. We who go on are better for having known you.

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Two houses of Super Heroes

Done in the “house style” of our local mag….

So you can now find out who wins the fight between Batman and Superman, and see Iron Man take on Captain America. But what about Spiderman versus Wonder Woman, or Magneto taking on Mr Freeze? Afraid not; there’s an army of copyright lawyers in the way. For far-fetched fights with silly names, you will need to watch wrestling for your fix.

The Montagues and Capulets of the comic world are Marvel and DC. They both feed off each other, and rival each other. DC is headed by perhaps the two biggest names there are: Superman, created by two Jewish artists to fight for justice, and Batman, morally ambiguous and psychologically complex before it was fashionable. There is also Wonder Woman, struggling to revise her outfit and powers in line with feminism. The rest of the DC Stable—Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Aquaman etc—aren’t nearly as famous.

Marvel’s fame is spread a little more evenly. They have endearingly neurotic Spider-man, genial lunk Thor (currently a woman in the comics), clean-cut Captain America, reformed arms dealer Iron Man, and the Hulk we all wish we could emulate on occasion (debate continues about whether any CGI can be as good as Lou Ferrigno the bodybuilder in green paint). They also have the Fantastic Four and the X-men, but the film rights are held separately, so they can’t meet up. Spider-man used to be in the same boat until he tried a reboot too far, and decided to join the big successful franchise. Given that their last outing wasn’t even liked by the director, the Fantastic Four might come begging to join up as well.

On the big screen, Marvel has been the winner of recent years with a master-plan worthy of a supervillain. Since Lord of the Rings showed it can pay to think ahead and think big, Marvel decided to create a single, coherent, cinematic world across multiple films and TV series. It established its characters in individual film franchises, then brought them all together for the Avengers. Like a rock supergroup, they can still go off and have solo outings. The shared universe extends to their TV series, with the little guys in Agents of SHIELD foreshadowing and reacting to the events of the films. They’re not lacking for ambition.

DC, in recent years, has been a bit lacklustre at the cinema in comparison. I use that word deliberately, seeing how they seem hell-bent upon making everything gritty, serious and, ahem, realistic. A muted palette and subdued lighting seems to be a vital part of this. A credible plot, however, doesn’t seem to be so essential. Humour is largely absent, apart from a couple of attempts that fell flat in Batman v Superman.

Marvel, meanwhile, does what I’d call proper superhero films: light, colour, action, humour, and a sense of fun. For the most part they have been smart enough to realise this doesn’t mean slacking off on plot, subtext or character. The critics seem to have been going for them as well; after all, after directing The Avengers, Joss Whedon knocked up an acclaimed production of Much Ado About Nothing for balance, and just to show he could.

Consider for a moment how to make a superhero film. Let us suppose it was that most poisoned chalice of all, the first Avengers film. You are told “Here are a few too many already established characters. You have to make them beat seven bells out of each other, and then a few bad guys, for two hours.” A good job may not wind up being high art, but it definitely requires skill. How do you make people warm to someone called Captain America, for example? You show people he’s actually a bit embarrassed about it.

You may get the impression I like the fun approach better. Not everyone does, and the idea of mixing a little bit of reality into a comic-book is a good one. Watchmen (the admired graphic novel, not the less admired film) did a fine job of considering how it would affect politics, civil liberties, and even popular fiction. Kick-Ass (at least the film; I have less indie cred about this one) started off imagining what would really happen if someone really did put on a costume and tried fighting crime, or what someone doing it with real combat skills would be like. It then went gleefully outrageous before turning comic-book itself by the end, although still with the disturbing edge.

On the small screen DC has been ruling with its Arrows, Flashes, Legends, Supergirls, and Gotham (adapted from a truly rubbish cartoon idea to make a cool adult series). Marvel’s Agents of Shield has been shaky in comparison, but getting stronger. Agent Carter started brilliantly but lost steam in its second season. All these were more “traditional” superhero-type fare; and DC has already said they won’t be linking up with the films. Marvel then experimented with other approaches using on-demand: Daredevil is dark, and Jessica Jones is matte* black.

You might not want to get your full geek on to keep track of all the ins and outs; you probably don’t have the time to watch more than a fraction of the output, anyway. But our evolving and media-jumping fictional ecology is a jungle with some fascinating beasts in it. Myself, I am wondering what would happen if Wonder Woman and Thor fell in love and tried to breach the divide….

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Fallout 4—Shaun’s thoughts

There a so many worthwhile, relevant and necessary things I should be doing, so instead I decided to write the thoughts of a character at the end of a computer game. As you might expect, this contains MASSIVE SPOILERS!

My name is Shaun. I am eighteen months old and I live with my Mom in a place called Sanctuary. But all of those things are a lot more complicated than that; I look like I’m ten years old, for example, and I’m talking to you. I’m pretty clever for my age so tell me if I go too fast explaining everything.

Sanctuary is a settlement. That means it has people in it, whereas towns and cities don’t. Well they can have a few in settlements inside, but towns and cities are just large areas of ruins with just critters, monsters or bad people in them. By bad people I mean ones who don’t grow food or make things themselves, but try to take it off the ones who do. Only once they’ve done that it’s OK to kill them and take THEIR stuff.

I used to live in a place called the Institute, which was very different. I spent a lot of time in little rooms and it was quite scary just when I got out into the atrium, which looked s it went up for ever. I only say that because everyone thinks it must have been a huge deal seeing the sky for the first time. That’s rubbish. The thing about the Outside is how dirty everything is, even in a really nice place like Sanctuary. The Institute was all white clothes and washed hands, you went in a working shower with soap at least once every day. I was taught to wash my hands before eating, before touching my face, after using the toilet, everything. We had synths to dust and clean everything on a schedule, which I suppose wasn’t nice for them but it was for us.

Out here there’s dust over everything, there’s holes in the roofs and walls of the houses so it’s everywhere. Mom says some of it a special dust called fallout and it’ll still be falling for centuries, but normal dust gets blown around anyway and the outside is just too big to be dusted even by everyone together. When you sit down somewhere your bottom gets dirty if it wasn’t already, then that gets on the next place you sit, and of course some of it ends up on your hands, so pretty much there’s muck everywhere all the time. If you want water you have to pump a handle, and if you want hot water you have to put it over a fire, then carry buckets of it to a tub if you want a bath. There’s some soap about but not much, a lot of it is 200 years old. The toilets are very different when there’s one around at all, and the toilet paper is green rectangles with the faces of the people who got us into the nuclear war on it. One day Mom is going to build a hot water system but she keep being too busy with other things.

Really you just have to get used to being dirty. It’s not so bad once you realise that most of the time dirt isn’t going to kill you. Mom says she took a lot of time getting used to it, and because she hadn’t been got ready by the Institute she kept getting sick at first. That’s sick of germs, not sick of radiation, but she did a lot of that too.

People keep not believing me when I say I like the food. I love the food. In the Institute you got packets of goo, powders and gels. Out here you get roasted meat and veg and soup and fruit. The meat comes from animals, some of them look really disgusting and are dangerous when alive like bloatflies and mole rats. Only Mom, my new Dad and other people shoot them, cut them up and cook them, which is really cool.

I’m going to tell you the complicated stuff now. My Mom isn’t really my Mom. My DNA is a combination of hers and my father’s, by which I mean the man she was married to, but her son was my Father. Only I am sort of a copy of him that was made when he was sixty years old, and they made me to be like a child who was ten years old in the first place. That’s nice so I didn’t have to get embarrassed about wearing diapers.

I said my Father was sixty years old, but actually he was born right before the atomic war, so he was about two hundred and eighty when he died. But he spent nearly all that time frozen, so he’d only lived sixty-one. My Mom, who was also his Mom, was twenty-eight when she had him, so now she’s nearly two hundred and fifty. She got frozen as well and only thawed out just now, so she’s got thirty years of “mileage” as she says. People keep saying she looks younger because she was born before the war, ate healthy and didn’t keep getting shot or irradiated (although she’s made up for that since), but to me it’s more like everyone else looks older.

My Father in the Institute had my DNA and had me created, but Father was sort of like his job because he looked after the whole Institute and his DNA had been used to create all of the synths in the first place, although as a template because none of were are my twins. He spent a lot of his time on the other side of glass walls or watching me do things or testing me. Like when my Mom first arrived, he didn’t tell me who she was and we both got upset, because she thought I was her son and wanted to get me out of there, and I didn’t want her to, and then he turned me off. He never hugged me or played with me, so he wasn’t a Father that way. The synth assistants were the only ones who were actually nice in there, when people weren’t looking

There are so many words that mean loads of different things. My first father was called Nate and he got frozen with Mom, but he was killed when they took my second father away. He grew up and became the Father of the Institute, and had me made to be just like him physically. The man who now lives with Mom and tells me stories and teaches me how to throw balls is Dad, which is a Father who does the nice things, but his name is Preston Garvey and we aren’t related. I only have one mother though, she looks after me and I think she loves me but she knows I’m not the same one she gave birth to, I’m just a lot like he might have turned out. I’m kind of glad because it means she’s never seen me poop myself.

It’s even more complicated for me because I’m a synth. That’s what you call a person who was built by a machine, or a machine that looks like a human. I’m flesh and blood except apparently they have made improvements, and some of my brain is a machine which means I can remember stuff better than anyone else and do maths well, but it also means I can get reprogrammed. There are some words that can make me immediately stop like a statue, and others that could do worse things, but lucky for me nobody knows them. It’s just possible that Mom might remember the statue one, but she says she doesn’t because she doesn’t have a memory like mine, and she wouldn’t use it anyway. But then she killed her own son, so I’m going to be good in case. And you mustn’t tell anyone else I’m a synth because people get funny about them.

I have a lot of aunties and uncles. The best one is Uncle Nick. He’s a synth, but a Generation Two which means he has a robot body with plastic skin. Only his plastic skin is all torn up by bullets and things so you can see the metal parts underneath, so everyone knows he’s a synth. He could get it fixed but he doesn’t want to. He says that sometimes showing everyone what you are proudly can be just as good as them not knowing, and anyway people are less worried about machines that are obviously machines. Besides, Uncle Nick is so tough and so cool it doesn’t matter. He has the memories of a hard-bitten detective from before the war and wears a special trench coat and a hat called a Fedora. Uncle Deacon is a lot of fun, but you can never believe a word he says. Uncle Macready brings his own kid to play sometimes. Auntie Curie is a synth herself but newer then me, and we share tips on how to be human. Auntie Piper is lovely but sometimes she and Mom go off and get drunk and giggly. Auntie Cait is a bit scary sometimes, but I know Mom’s tougher than her. Uncle Sturges knows how to make loads of cool gadgets when Mom’s not around. The Atom cats are cool and Uncle Travis is really shy. Then there’s Mama Murphy, who’s really old and gets confused sometimes but is really kind.

Mom’s so nice to me most of the time, but she wasn’t always, not quite like Mrs Macready and her son. She looked really relieved when I got measured against the wall and turned out to be growing, because she’d been afraid I had been made to just be a child forever. She doesn’t look tough unless she puts on power armour, but people say she’s the best fighter in the Commonwealth. She can shoot the hairs off a stingwing’s back two miles over the horizon between wingbeats, but mostly she waits until they’re closer and then puts a bullet straight through their body. She’s also really smart, very good at science and fixing things, and people do what she says. She’s the General of the Minutemen and that means she’s like the leader of most of the Commonwealth. She blew up both the Brotherhood of Steel and the Institute and drove out most of the raiders and Super-mutants and monsters, so people don’t mess with her.

I don’t think it’s made her happy though. She gets sad sometimes too, sometimes she lets other people cheer her up, sometimes she insists on going off on her own. Some people say I’ve got to be really nice because she needs me and everyone else needs her. I guess she’s got plenty to be sad about. She saw the world before it was blown up, when things were green and every house was clean like the Institute and there were hardly any monsters or raiders around. She got frozen, then her husband got killed and her son was kidnapped. When she thawed out she learned how to be a badass and went after him, only it was after sixty years so he’d grown up and become leader of the Institute, who had kidnapped him in the first place. I thought the Institute was nice when I was there but turns out they were still killing and kidnapping people, using the synths as slaves, and worse things they won’t tell me. Mom had to pretend she was working for her son for a while, and she also had to fool someone else she won’t tell me about, so I guess they both said some very nasty things to her before the end. Father was dying anyway but it was Mom blowing up the Institute that finally did for him. She says the Institute lived by secrets and fooling people so it was fair to do that back to them, and the synths had to get freed, but it still couldn’t have been very nice. I think part of Father was kind of OK with it because he sent me to Mom at the end to be looked after. Besides, if he thawed her out and let her into the Institute after raising hell across the Commonwealth, he was either really stupid, or asking for it.

So life is pretty good, but I’m glad I didn’t see all the trouble myself.

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Game of Thrones blog post

This is the original, uncut draft of a guest-blog about Thrones done for my friend Victoria Watson of Elementary Writers (and she does a mean proofreading service). The shorter version should be appearing there in due course. https://elementaryvwatson.wordpress.com/

Apologies for the long absence. My father died last year and it rather knocked me into a tailspin. There will be a post on that coming at some point when I can nerve myself up for it…

Observe your reaction when I say the following words:

Game of Thrones.

It probably runs through a spectrum. A certain person not unconnected with this blog suffers constant attempts by her boyfriend to make her read the book or watch the TV series, and hence feels annoyance at the mere mention of it. Some of my friends go into rapture at the mere mention of these words; music starts playing in their heads and their eyes take on what Peter Dinklage, the biggest star of Thrones, calls the “Nerd Glaze.” Some people feel deep disquiet and worry at the cruelty and sexism you will find therein; is it merely villainous characters or does it extend to the TV producers and even the author? There are people like me who read the books first and sometimes would rather the TV series had never happened. There are rabid fans who troll the author online for not writing fast enough.

All this rich pageant of humanity is worthy of notice, but for me, the most interesting ones are those who like it despite themselves. Grace Dent, critic of the Independent, once wrote one of the most scathing (and funny) slaggings-off of fantasy fiction and fans that I have ever read. However, she goes on to say that she likes Game of Thrones and enjoys it. She used to appear on “Thronecast” discussing it; that programme is now hosted by Sue Perkins, once lambasted for expressing literary snobbery.

Grace Dent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/grace-dent-on-tv-game-of-thrones-sky-atlantic-7810980.html

There’s a fair bit of the general genre/literary tension here, which I won’t rant about. But why does GoT, often cross these divides to the mainstream?

In some cases it might be quality, acting, and sheer size. But one of its oft-quoted strengths is its resemblance to real-world history. The various atrocities, treacheries, villainies and iniquities are genuinely reminiscent of history lessons about the wars of the roses/cousins, or ancient Rome. A certain notorious wedding was based upon real events from Scottish history (The Black Dinner/Glencoe Massacre).

The author and a number of people who would not normally prod fantasy fiction with a chainmail-repellent stick make much of the relative lack of overt magic in the setting. It is a long time before the dragons put in an appearance, and even Clive James made an exception to his rule “’It’s vital to have nothing to do with any art form which has dragons in it.”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2645151/Terminally-ill-Clive-James-74-jokes-final-public-appearance.html

There are no elves or orcs, and the only dwarf is the kind we known from real life. Altogether, it could almost be period drama if you forget the geography. Although, being a scientist and a nitpicker, I can’t help laughing cynically at the 1000-ft high ice wall (Hadrian eat your heart out!) or the existence of land-based life in the permanently frozen north; there must be a lot more magic present than the author admits to.

There are some good characters, including superb love-to-hate villains, although very few are black and white; a man who threw a child off a tower in episode 1 is now commonly regarded as sympathetic. But for my money, George RR Martin’s achievement is to do danger better than anything else I have read or seen. It is no great secret that major characters die off unexpectedly in GoT. No matter where they are in their character arc, no matter how popular or infamous, no matter how much outrage their loss will cause, it seems that anyone can die at the drop of a hat—and they do. If you read a normal book, you usually know the protagonist isn’t going to get hit by a bus two-thirds of the way through. You can suspend disbelief about that, but in GoT, you feel real fear for them. It doesn’t usually come over as simply an effect to shock, nor as so arbitrary as to damage the story. It feels worryingly like real life in a bloody and unstable period.

This is probably an illusion; I doubt that even GRRM could kill some of them, or all of them. That said, I am seriously thinking of placing a bet that the world does NOT get saved in the end, nor does the favourite for the Iron Throne get to keep it.

I might also bet against the survival of Tyrion Lannister, but only because I would get good odds. This character is again worthy of a mention, for the TV series in particular. Peter Dinklage now receives top billing; if anyone knows of any acting role that is better for a dwarf, they are welcome to say so [Samson in “Carnivale” comes second]. It tackles the way his character has been disadvantaged for being a dwarf without being defined by it. He is flawed but admired by the audience; he drinks, he fights and schemes, adores his brother but hates his father and sister, whores but falls in love, is somehow PC and anti-PC simultaneously. Not to mention he gets to be screamingly funny at times, and his double-act with Jerome Flynn was a true pleasure to observe. But perhaps the best part is that it seems to have led on to genuinely height-blind casting with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Dinklage probably deserves some bigger height-blind awards than he already has.

But while we’re on the subject of PC… oh dear. Gratuitous titillation is a common affliction, but that doesn’t excuse any particular practitioner. There may be a fair amount of sex in the books, but the series has added to it (the term “sexposition” has been coined for plot-relevant dialogue coupled with nudity). In any case there is a difference between reading “she peeled off her dress and let it fall to the floor” and seeing an implausibly well-lit and unmarked actress selected for her extreme beauty doing it in HD. Then there is the “method casting” of porn stars as medieval sex workers. There may be feminist arguments for that as well as against it, but it adds to the general air of sleeze. No doubt the production company has made cynical calculations over how many viewers will be pulled in versus how many will be alienated, but it still stinks.

Much more disturbingly, the series has added two rapes that were not in the books, or happened to different characters. The second led to fantasy site “The Mary Sue” ceasing to cover Thrones. The author defended it by saying that to portray a non-sexist medieval society, or dirty wars without sexual violence used as a weapon, would be dishonest.

ttp://www.themarysue.com/we-will-no-longer-be-promoting-hbos-game-of-thrones/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/04/george-rr-martin-game-of-thrones-rape-reality-of-war

A Scissor Sister takes the producers to task: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dP78rvZ2y0

This caused me to wonder: horrible fates are visited on characters of both genders with great frequency, why should something terrible befalling female character X cause people to protest as opposed to something terrible happening to male character Y? Not many people liked the extended torture of one male character, but it did not lead to boycott calls that I am aware of.

My best theory is that it is a matter of moral hazard level. In real western-world life, misogyny and sexual assault are far more common than being executed with molten gold, or having your skull crushed by an eight-foot knight. Yes, non-sexual violence is real and there are debates to be had about its depiction, but many people are more worried that viewers might be influenced to sexual abuse than to murder and torture.

Which is not to say that people do not leave the books and series because of its grimness; many have. I could not really say that I “enjoy” watching and reading all the time, it is an experience but often one full of worry and shock (the same goes for 1984 for example). However, I have quit other authors and series because I thought they were being dark for the sake of it, and I have not done so yet with Thrones; it seems in keeping with the setting. Oddly, I have read some other GRRM fiction and would say that it actually feels quite “warm” compared to many other authors.

You may be getting the impression I prefer the books. Quite apart from snobbery, the TV series has changed the public name of the story (the books are “A Song of Ice and Fire”), made changes, altered characters, and now… it has overtaken the author. The smug sense I had of knowing roughly what was coming next, and the safety of being braced for the next horrible death, is now history.

GRRM says that authors fall into two general camps. The Architect draws a flow-chart of their plot and knows exactly what will be happening in chapter 37 before they put pen to paper on the actual novel. A Gardener starts with the seed of an idea, plants it, sees what comes up and how it develops as they write. By his own admission, GRRM is more of a gardener. However, now he has had to indicate to the TV company how the story continues, and how it will end, and he knows they will get to that point and fill in the details and dialogue before him. This must be a right pain. He may have been a scriptwriter as well as an author, he might be an experienced operator who knew more or less what he was getting in to, but I can still feel for his plight. After all, it getting THIS big must have seemed unlikely.

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/749309-i-think-there-are-two-types-of-writers-the-architects

There are rumours of even greater plot divergences ahead; given the difficulty of keeping up with the intricacies and many characters at the best of times, attempting to reconcile two different versions sounds like a nightmare for me. This situation has actually happened before, with a Japanese manga (graphic novel) called Full Metal Alchemist. An animé (animated tv series) adaption was made, was popular, and overtook the manga. The author deliberately allowed the TV company to finish the story themselves, while she went on and wrote a different story and ending herself. So then there was another animé adaption, this time sticking to the books. Oddly, for my money, the first one worked better…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fullmetal_Alchemist#Production

So… a well-regarded series amongst fantasy readers has now become a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut even referred to by the US President. In the process it has gathered some new fans, opened minds, become an industry in Northern Ireland, been visited by the Queen, provided work for a number of thesps, made a few stars, annoyed many people, shocked more, courted controversy, and probably broken a few moulds while it’s been at it. The books are still there and same as they were apart from the covers; for all its faults, I can’t be sorry the TV series was made.

Love it or hate it, the Thrones explosion has changed things…

James A Tucker

Thanks to Martyn P Jackson for suggestions and comment

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