Category Archives: The Escape Art

Sci-fi, geek culture and the art of escaping your self.

The trouble with intersectional political alliances as illustrated in Star Wars

Intersectionality is a powerful idea conveyed in an overcomplicated word. But Star Wars is a great way to understand it better.

One thing I love about scifi? It provides all the best metaphors to help folks understand the fierce complexities of contemporary politics. Mid-way through the snap UK general election a lot of Harry-Potter-as-political-metaphor memes went around, like Corbyn Black saviour of the muggles, or my own tweet on the theme.

They work well, Harry Potter is after all one huge metaphor for British class structures. Scifi & Fantasy are genres that tell stories as metaphors, and the best of those metaphorical narratives are always applicable to our actual reality today. Lord of the Rings as allegory for World War 1 is well known. But the mother of all scifi political metaphors today must be Star Wars.

Star Wars is a metaphor for a very specific kind of social / political / military conflict. It happens to be the dominant conflict of our era, fought in many forms, and in many places, for well over a century. Amusingly, many people only woke to Star Wars metaphorical meaning with the release of Rogue One, which amped up the political commentary to levels that even weak willed fanboy manchildren could not miss.

A diverse alliance of rebel forces fight for Liberation from an imperial force aiming to Conserve the priviledge and power of one single racial / cultural / gender identity. That’s the political background of Star Wars in a sentence, and it’s also the politics of most 20th and early 21st century conflicts. From WW2 Nazis vs Allies, to the fierce polìtical conflicts tearing up the USA today, it’s the fight between Liberal vs. Conservative powers that we see repeated time and again.

“Admiral Ackbar feels his people are the real leaders of the rebellion, and as allies the humans should probably damn well shut up and take orders.”

Liberals face a serious problem in this battle. Consider the Rebel Alliance. It’s made up of the most diverse possible set of allies. Not even cross species, it includes military and other forces who literally come from different evolutionary systems. Star Wars never goes into it in depth, but we have to presume the Rebel Alliance has overcome a lot of infighting to unify conflicting agendas into one coherent strategy.

From what we see, Rebel X-Wing pilots are predominantly male, blue collar guys with security / technical backgrounds. In contrast the alliance diplomatic corps lead by Mon Mothma and Leia seem to be mostly women with liberal arts / humanities educations. These two groups probably see the rebellion very differently, and have to continually negotiate to find a good working relationship.

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The Mon Calamari cruisers can take on multiple Imperial star destroyers at once, but were only coverted for military function after the Mon Calamari were targetted and nearly wiped out by Imperial forces. No doubt Admiral Ackbar feels his people are the real leaders of the rebellion, and as allies the humans, who basically caused all these problems with their history of colonialism, should damn well shut up and take orders.

Who knows what the Bothans want from the whole thing, but many of them died to recover those plans, so they probably expect a cut of any political settlement when the Republic is re-established.

In real life we have a word for the problems of factionalism faced by Liberal political alliances.

INTERSECTIONALITY.

It’s a word much mocked by Conservative a*holes. And perhaps with some cause, because while it represents a very useful idea, it is in itself an overly complex term, drawn from academese, expressing the tendency of intellectuals to cloak their discussions in invented jargon. Intersectionality emerged from academic feminist discourse of the 1980s, but is widely used today in the raucous online arguments spawned by social media. But for all its problems, intersectionality does literally mean what it says.

Intersectionality means this. That gender discrimination, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism and other social justice causes all INTERSECT. They share a single common cause. And they all benefit by working together. All of these groups: women, people of colour, LGBT, the working classes, and many more, are all victims of political oppression. And the people doing the oppressing are the Empire. The political and economic elite of the day. The 1%. For whome class, race and gender are all convenient pretexts to divide and conquer the masses they rule over.

Without a widely held concept of intersectionality, of shared political interest, it’s all too easy for different groups of people suffering under political oppression, to blame each other for their problems. Look at the situation today, where the white working classes in America and Europe are told to blame poor immigrants for the lack of jobs. In fact both groups are equally exploited by the 1%. If they work together they can improve their situation. But that can only happen if they recognise the intersection of their shared interests. Otherwise the divided will always be defeated.

Can X-Wing pilots and the diplomatic corps ever work together?

One of the most bitter divides between liberal causes today is along the fault line of gender vs. class. You can see this in the fight between Berniebros socialists vs. Hilary Clinton feminists that broke out in the 2016 US presidential primaries. This is an old, old conflict. Socialism evolved through the late 19th and early 20th century as a political movment focused on liberating working class men, and has always clashed seriously with feminism as it emerged over a similar timeframe, as an ideology lead by middle and upper class women. Berniebros vs HRC Feminists is only the latest flareup among groups who should be alies.

I’m not here to offer a solution to white male working class socialism vs. white female middle class feminism. Only to point out that if X-Wing pilots behaved with the rank misogyny of Berniebros, the Rebel Alliance would never have even formed, let alone found victory at the battle of Yavin. Then again, maybe X-Wing pilot assholery was only resolved by the more intelligent, better educated diplomatic corps never lowering themselves to the level of trading insults.

A better word for the intersection of shared political interests?

The oppresive power of communism was cast off in part because political leaders like Lech Wałęsa in Poland could draw on the idea of Solidarity. Maybe today we need to stop using a confusing term like intersectionality, and return to using simpler words like unity or togetherness.

Of course Star Wars has it’s own word for intersectionality. The Force is, after all, what surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. So next time you see a Star Wars fanboy making an ignorant rant about intersectional social justice warriors, maybe just calmly point out that he’s taking sides against Jedi knights wielding the Force.

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No, The Handmaid’s Tale is not science fiction

Sci-fi sells us fantasies. Margaret Atwood’s classic novel is all about the danger of fantasy. Why should they be pigeon holed together?

Damien writes on scifi, culture and politics for The Guardian, Independent, Wired, BBC and Aeon magazine, and also right here. Follow on Twitter @damiengwalter

Women understand, I think much better than men, how horrifying it is to be the object of another person’s fantasy. Glen Close going stalker crazy on Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction is so alien and horrifying to men that you can make a box office smash from it. Women experience that behaviour from men daily.

“The men who founded Gilead probably read and enjoyed John Norman’s Gor novels.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is a story all about the skincrawling horror of being held captive as an object of fantasy. It’s literary lineage is closer to The Collector by John Fowles than anything by Arthur C Clarke. Margaret Atwood has generally resisted all labels for it, including the most commonly applied, that it is a feminist novel, preferring to call it simply a human story. And despite being nominated for numerous sci’fi awards, has never accepted that label either.

Science fiction fans have proved less than happy with that refusal to pigeon hole. As The Handmaid’s Tale has grown in fame, SF fandom has frequently asked why the book isn’t sold or marketed in the genre. It’s not an unreasonable question, after all it shares some similarities with science fiction. It’s set in the near future, in what you might think of as a branching alternate timeline from our own history.

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Imagine an alternate timeline where The Handmaid’s Tale was published as science fiction. Possibly in the kind of pulp cover that many novels featuring women enslaved to strange obsessive Nazis often featured, with a subtitile like “I was a captive of fundamentalist perverts!”, and shipped out to bookshops, as one of many sci-fi novels released in 1985.

The sci-fi edition of The Handmaid’s Tale would have found itself in strange, and deeply inappropriate company. Among the actual scifi bestsellers of 1985 was Mercenaries of Gor, the 21st novel in John Norman’s Gor saga. For the unaware, the Gor novels are about a fantasy world where men are muscular barbarian warriors and women, many abducted from Earth, are their sex slaves. By the standards of the modern internet the Gor novels aren’t terribly shocking, but they are full on BDSM sex fantasies.

To give John Norman some minimal credit, he wove such a potent sexual fantasy in the Gor novels that they gave rise to the Gorean subculture, and remain quite widely read today. Is there anything wrong with the Gor novels? Only if you think there’s anything wrong with Laurel K Hamilton’s kinky wereleopard sex novels, with erotic fiction in general, or with pornography as a whole. Few people today believe that repressing our sexual fantasies leads anywhere good. We live in a liberal society that believes it’s much healthier to recognise, express and even celebrate our sexual fantasies.

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But there is a serious problem if we can’t distinguish between indulging fantasy, and critically discussing the dangers of fantasy. Because without that critical discussion, we face the serious risk of fantasy being allowed to slip into reality. The men who founded Gilead probably read and enjoyed John Norman’s Gor novels. And enjoyed their fantasy so much, they used murder and violence to enforce it as America’s new reality.

Look at ISIS today, the Nazis in the 1930s, or any brutal patriarchal society in history. These are men driven to make their personal fantasies of power, dominance and control the reality that others must live under. The newly empowered Trumpist far right is terrifying because it shares so many features with those patriarchal regimes, not least its worrying preference for fantasy over reality and fact.

I fear that, had The Handmaid’s Tale been published as science fiction, it would not today be playing such a pivotal role as a symbol of resistance against Trump and the far right. Because sci-fi floods the world with fantasy. Sometimes high quality entertaining fantasy like those great MARVEL movies. Sometimes rather cheap and exploitative fantasy like John Norman’s Gor novels. But if we’re going to understand, and change for the better, our reality, we need to clearly recognise the work of writers, artists and other creators, who are doing more than selling us escapist fantasies.

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Scarlet Johansson’s star quality makes her all wrong for Ghost in the Shell

Cyberpunk’s literary roots have always  dug deep into themes of self destruction…both our terror of losing, and lust to be liberated from, our self.

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It’s hard for a human as universally recognised as Scarlet Johansson to pass as a nobody. But Major Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist of the new Johanson vehicle and cyberpunk franchise Ghost in the Shell, is the ultimate nobody. The Major is a synthetic human, who appears in the form of an athletic young woman primarily because creator Masamune Shirow understood the young male audience for his 1989 manga series. There’s no small irony that, in the ongoing project to create her star self, Johansson has stumbled by trying to remake a story that is all about the destruction of self.

Beneath the surface of its now cliche iconography – mirrorshades, black leather trench coats, flickering neon lighting – cyberpunk has always been about the self. Or more precisely, a philosophical investigation into what will remain of the self once technology has remade human life. Before cyberpunk gave Bladerunner and The Matrix to cinema, those ideas were evolved in two related literary forms – Japanese manga and American / European hard science fiction, which began asking hard questions of identity and self at around the same time.

“But we’re also powerfully drawn to any experience that allows us to escape our self. Video games, virtual reality, cinematic CGI, all provide a technological liberation from our self.”

William Gibson’s novella Burning Chrome features a young woman who is hustling to buy new eyes, the latest Nikon’s, so she can become a “simstim” star. It’s an image Gibson builds on with the character of Molly Millions (a likely influence over Major Kusanagi), a cybernetically enhanced bodyguard whose eyes are sealed behind mirrorshade insets. His skill at composing such poetic metaphors for self transformation made Gibson the spiritual leader of the cyberpunk movement, even before cyberpunk as a name was coined.

For much of it’s history science fiction treated technology as a power controlled by men. Competent scientists who built rockets, and explored alien worlds. Cyberpunk inverted this equation to ask harder, more interesting questions. When technology allows us to replace first our eyes, then our entire bodies, what will be left of “us” at all? When technology lets us reprogramme our minds as easily as we programme a computer, what of our self will be left? For most of us, especially those brought up to believe in some form of soul or spirit at the centre of our human self, these questions can be terrifying.

That terror at losing our selves gives cyberpunk its strange mix of dystopian darkness and fantasy wish fulfillment. Anyone struggling to “unplug” from the internet understands the terror of having our self obliterated by technology. But we’re also powerfully drawn to any experience that allows us to escape our self. Video games, virtual reality, cinematic CGI, all provide a technological liberation from our self. Watching Scarlet Johansson deconstructed and remade as Major Kusanagi, we’re watching our own selves experience this fantasy…or nightmare.

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Japanese creators of cyberpunk perhaps have an advantage in exploring the nightmare fantasy of tecnological self destruction. Buddhist cultures already understand the self as “empty“, a construct of perception, subject to constant change. Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, arguably the greatest cyberpunk narrative, sculpts a baroque and horrifying metaphor for the self. In the anime’s infamous climax, a young hero cursed with psychic powers is mutated into a vast mound of human flesh, crushing the city beneath muscle and bone, as his full psychic self is manifested in our physical world.

The excitement inspired by a movie adapation of Ghost in the Shell is because, as we stare into our smartphones, and soon our VR headsets, we’re living in the midst of a revolution in how we see our selves. Masamune Shirow’s manga and anime originals have something to say about that. But as is so often the case with Hollywood adaptations, Scarlet Johansson’s visually impressive, but intellectually shallow retelling, does not. That’s a shame, and not only because the movie’s “whitewashing” also robs of it of the cultural context that gave it the Ghost in the Shell meaning. But also because Johansson, as one of the most adept sculptors of self identity alive today, might have had so much more to say on the subject.

Olaf Stapledon on how science fiction defeats fascism

With fascism growing at a terrible pace today, Olaf Stapledon’s words from 1937, written at the height of the Nazi menace, hold meaning for all sci-fi fans, readers, and writers.

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“Perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis.”

~Olaf Stapledon

I’m privileged to be a part of the worldwide science fiction community. As a writer and blogger, as a graduate of the Clarion science fiction writers workshop, as a regular columnist on SF for The Guardian, and as a lifelong reader and fan.

Like many in the SF community and beyond, I’ve watched the emergence of modern fascism with bleak Lovecraftian horror. It feels as though our little world of sci-fi readers and writers got an early foretaste of this when a group of far right activists turned the Hugo awards into a platform for their bigoted ideology. But there’s a good reason why the Sadly Rabid Puppies targeted the world’s biggest SF award – science fiction can be a powerful way of resisting fascism.

The small minded nationalism that lead to Brexit in the UK, and the outright racism that fueled the Trump campaign, have left the whole world in no doubt that the far right is making its strongest push to assert fascist ideology on us all since the 1930s. That time it lead to global war. Today we are all searching for any way we can prevent that tragedy repeating. How can science fiction be more than an escape from today’s reality? One of the greats of the genre has an answer.

Writing in March 1937, at the height of the Nazi threat in Europe, the legendary science fiction author Olaf Stapledon wondered what response he and other writers could make in such dark times.

“In these conditions it is difficult for writers to pursue their calling at once with courage and with balanced judgment. Some merely shrug their shoulders and withdraw from the central struggle of our age. These, with minds closed against the world’s most vital issues, inevitably produce works which not only have no depth of significance for their contemporaries, but also are subtly insincere.

Stapledon is keen to identify that a central risk for any writer, artist or creator in the face of terror, is too hide. But Stapledon sees an equal and opposite risk, for writers who “take up arms” as political activists.

“The very urgency of their service may tend to blind them to the importance of maintaining and extending, what may be called the ‘self critical self consciousness of the human species’, the attempt to see man’s life as a whole in relation to the rest of things. This involves the will to regard all human affairs and ideals and theories with as little human prejudice as possible. Those who are in the thick of the struggle inevitably tend to become, though in a great and just cause, partisan.

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These words, that so accurately capture the conundrum faced by writers today, were written by Stapledon for the introduction to his seminal SF novel Star Maker. It’s a story that reaches beyond the bounds of human existence, to life in the broadest possible sense, on the galactic scale, and has been inspiration to generations of SF authors. And it’s a novel that, far from worshipping only at the altar of science, also dives headlong into the spiritual.

“At the risk of raising thunder both on the Left and the Right, I have occasionally used certain ideas and words derived from religion, and I have tried to interpret them in relation to modern needs. The valuable, though much damaged words “spiritual” and “worship”, which have become almost as obscene to the Left as the good old sexual words are to the Right, are here intended to suggest an experience the Right is apt to pervert and the Left to misconceive.”

That experience, in Olaf Stapledon’s thinking, is to see the world from a perspective beyond the human individual, or any political ideology. Stapledon believed that the highest calling of science fiction was to show us the universe, our world, and our selves in new ways. To see our “turbulent world against a background of stars”.

“The attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis.”

As the last year has unfolded, and the peril of our new political situation has become clearer, my thoughts have gone to Star Maker many times. Seeing our moment in the full context of our history, and potential future, is a form of self-healing, and a way to reorient our perspective away from the immediate tumult, and back to the bigger, universal, picture.

Fascism can only win by reducing us to the most narrow minded and bigoted ways of seeing the world. Science fiction is a perfect way to show people the widest, most imaginative, and most hopeful ways of seeing. As SF readers and writers we might choose activism, we might choose withdrawal. But if we really want to make a difference, our best tool is to write, read and promote great science fiction.

 

A FEW CONTEMPORARY WRITERS I FIND HOPE IN:

Ramez Naam

Monica Byrne

John Scalzi

Malka Older

N K Jemesin

Dave Hutchinson

Tell me the writers helping to inspire your resistance on Twitter and Facebook.

Viking myths made men fearless. What do our myths make us?

A myth is more than just an old story. In their day, hundreds or thouands of years ago, myths shaped reality. WOAH! That’s a big claim, right? That the Ramayana actually shaped the reality of the people who read it two thousand years ago? That’s like saying Star Wars: Rogue One is shaping our reality today. Maybe it is. Story is how our mind works, and the stories we tell say everything about how we think.
“If Viking myths made humans fearless, I think ours tend to make us fearful.”
If like me you have a new addiction to the Vikings tv show, you’ve probably been doing some thinking about Viking myths. Stories of Odin One-Eye, that eye given to look in the well of knowledge, resonate especially in the frozen months of northen climates. Thor, Loki, Baldur, Freya and the other gods have never truly gone away. Their still on every cinema screen thanks to Marvel, and being read by millions thanks to authors like Neil Gaiman.
Viking myths described a world that was remarkably small. The world was only as wide a longboat could row. The gods lived just overhead, but out of reach, in the heavens above. And they watched and judged our lives. Men and women lived out their destiny, and fought bloody battles to pursue their fate, all to be judged well by the gods. Where today we see the universe as infinite, Vikings saw their cosmos as eternal. An endless battlefield, on which the eternal dramas of gods and men cycled forever. A mortal man was just a shadow of a greater reality. The point of life wasn’t to live a long life in safety and comfort. It was to commit acts that would echo in eternity.
Vikings weren’t alone in this worldview. The myths of the Greeks and Romans, and of the ancient Hindu world, all painted a similar picture. These were all pagan mythologies, and warrior cultures. We idolise these times, because they were well suited to the telling of great heroic tales. Of course they were, by our standards, brutal and unjust times, filled with terrible human suffering. But that’s to judge another reality by our own standards. Those who really believed the pagan worldview had no reason to fear death or suffering. Those things were just a gateway to eternal life.
Vikings is impressive as a tv show because, under the guidance of writer Michael Hirst, it dedicates a lot of time to the clash of Viking culture with the Christian culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain. In a memorable scene, a small band of Viking warriors in a “shieldwall” obliterate a far larger Saxon army. The Vikings are better warriors because they do not fear death. The weird mashup of pagan and juedo-christian beliefs that were Anglo-Saxon Christianity made them fearful of death, and of the judgement that would be made upon their sinful souls.
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If stories are the operating system of human consciousness, then myths are culture specific upgrades, each new version bringing new features and retiring some old ones. Viking myths made men fearless. Christian myths made us compliant. They took the wild heroism of Viking and pagan cultures, and tamed it into the more stable, communal Anglo-Saxon world. We’re a thousand years or more on from that cultural shift. What do our myths make us?
Our tv screens are filled with heroic tales. And you don’t have to look far to find overbearing patriarchal sky gods still stalking the world. But the real myths of the modern world are stories told by science. A universe some 12 billion years old, measured by the speed of light in a vacumn. Life emerging from a blind process of evolution. All of it beginning with a Big Bang. A very 20th century idea, reflecting all the bullets, combustion engines and nuclear bombs that kept recent history banging. And we do have all these stories of powerful machines, The Terminator or The Matrix, determined to enslave or kill human life.
If Viking myths made humans fearless, I think ours tend to make us fearful. Terrified specks of animate matter in a vast inanimate universe. Once the gods walked with us shoulder to shoulder. Now there are no gods. No eternal drama of life. Only an infinite empty universe, not even ambivalent to our cause, but utterly unaware of it. These are the stories that shape our reality. These are our myths. And even a fearless Viking would find them soul shudderingly bleak.
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Disney will remake the Star Wars prequels. Rogue One proves why.

The only thing I’m going to say about Rogue One is this…it’s a perfect prequel to A New Hope. In every possible way. Any more than that would risk spoilers. Go and see it, you will argee that in many ways it’s the film the Star Wars prequels could have been.
“Anakin Skywalker is Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof all rolled into one archetype.”
I remember my excitement going to see Phantom Menace in ’99. And the sick disappoint at how very bad it was. It damaged my faith in Star Wars for a very long time, until Force Awakens…awakened my new hope (sorry).
Rogue One makes me even more excited for Star Wars. It shows Disney as a studio – arguably the only major studio – willing to take risks on darker, more nuanced storytelling on a major scifi franchise. And yes, also more political storytelling. For a story arc of the sheer size and epic grandeur as Star Wars to work, those things have to be there.
And of all their many failings, the Star Wars prequels worst sin was the absolute failure to convey the darkness of the story they were telling. If Star Wars begins with A New Hope, then the stories that preceede it are the destruction of hope. The prequel trilogy is about the triumph of tyranny over the republic…how can that not be a political story?!
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Anakin Skywalker’s story arc is the darkest tale that can be told. He is the holder of power that can, literally, save the galaxy. Instead he is corrupted by an ideology of hate. His arc turns on a fascist terrorist attack where, with his own hands, he murders children he was sworn to protect. Anakin Skywalker is Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof all rolled into one archetype.
Disney has a history of understanding the long term value of great storytelling. For decades it only released it’s movies on special occaisions, and shunned video releases for years. It’s a very different company since Pixar’s reverse takeover, but it’s business commitment to storytelling is even greater.
Rogue One proves that Disney want future audiences to be able to watch Star Wars as one flowing, seamless saga. It wants to own one of the all time archetypal narrative arcs, the ultimate Heroes Journey, as told in every culture from Hunduism through the Norse myths, recast for the modren age. That’s a product it can sell to audiences for decades to come.
The Star Wars prequels just aren’t good enough to fulfill that ambition for Disney. It won’t happen soon, it won’t be announced until they are ready, but have no doubt that those films will be remade to fit Disney’s high standards of storytelling. I for one welcome it, because with Anakin’s story told in its true darkness, Star Wars will be greater than ever.

Quick thoughts on Westworld

Just caught the first episode of Westworld. I suspect it’s a show I’ll be writing about more. Some first thoughts, not so much about the show, as about why I think it matters.

Science fiction is the art of metaphor. It gives us ways of thinking and talking about things we can’t otherwise easily talk about. In that regard Westworld is science fiction at it’s best. A metaphor of such cut glass clarity was spun in the first episode that my mind is still turning over where it might go. What is it a metaphor for? Well, if I could say that we wouldn’t need the metaphor, would we?

And we do need metaphors. In fact, we need better ones. The robot / android as a metaphor for human life is a powerful one. It’s not just in Westworld, or movies like Bladerunner. In daily life our culture routinely talks and thinks about human life as being like a machine. We describe the brain as a kind of computer. We treat education like programming that computer. We fix the body by replacing it’s parts. Worse, we treat people like machines. We force ourselves and others into mechanistic processes, especially in the workplace. We don’t fit well into those processes. Because, of course, we aren’t machines at all.

You might be among the people saying, “Damo, Damo, Damo…we are BIOLOGICAL machines, but still ultimately machines”, but that’s not really my point. For a time the machine was the best metaphor we could find for the state of being human. But it’s taken us as far as it can. Wherever you look, you see the limitations of the machine metaphor for life. So we need a new, and more nuanced, metaphor. And that, I think, is what Westworld has joined the struggle to find.

That’s interesting. I’ll catch up with episode 2 during the week, and see what progress it has made.

Doctor Strange : Nope, Buddhism won’t give you magic powers

SPOILERS AHEAD.

It’s a familiar story by now. A straight white male – and it almost always is a straight white male – is living a kind of ordinary life when BAM! Events transpire that send Mr. Straight White Male on an epic adventure through which he gains Incredible Powers of magic and / or kung-fu. Star Wars? The Matrix? Every goddamn “Heroes Journey” narrative ever written. And now here we are again, with Doctor Strange.

“And it’s definitely not magic. Quite the opposite, Buddhism teaches its students to engage with the reality of the here and now.”

At some point our Straight-White-Male-Hero-Destined-To-Master-KungFu ends up studying with someone who looks a lot like a Buddhist monk, in something a lot like a Buddhist temple. Because, as we all know, Buddhism IS the gateway to to an altered perception of reality that unleashes powers of magic / kung-fu, right? Doctor Strange literally travels to Tibet (Nepal in the movie, because, you know, Hollywood doesn’t want to alienate the Chinese market) where he meets the “Ancient One” (who in the movie is randomly CELTIC, see above reason) who inducts him into House Gryffindor, so he can fight the evil Slytherin menace. Oh wait, getting my magical induction stories confused.

It’s all great. I love the Doctor Strange movie, and I’m a sucker for this kind of story. But then I (mostly) conform to its demographic targeting. And I love the more recent twist of having a really cute straight white woman in the lead role, although I’m honestly not sure this is as radical a demographic shift as is sometimes claimed. I’d like to see more dowdy middle aged protagonists go on magical adventures. They’re the ones, I think, who really need it.

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But can we please clear something up here? BUDDHISM IS NOT THE GATEWAY TO SECRET MAGICAL POWERS. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of hours you spend in meditation, you’ll never be able to summon power from other dimensions, conjure cool looking glowing sigils with wavy hand movements, or indulge in the joys of astral projection. Got it?

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“Oh Damo!” I hear one of you sigh, “You’re just taking this all too seriously! Nobody believes Buddhism can REALLY give them magical powers. Any more than they believe they can really upload their mind into a computer to achieve immortality! Oh, wait, loads of people do actually believe that…” As, in fact, do many people really genuinely believe Buddhism will give them magic powers. And much as I would like to blame this on Hollywood, it’s a much, much older problem.

While I’m lucky not to have had my hands crushed in an automobile accident, my own life took me into the Himalayan mountains, to study at the Buddhist temples in Dharamsala. I’ve been a student of Buddhism for eight years now. I stepped out of a successful, creative career – that was killing me incrementally – and Buddhism was part of what helped me transition to a different kind of life. Now I live in Thailand, a Buddhist nation, to study Theravada Buddhism. In 2015 I travelled across India, to the capital of the Tibetan government in exile, and home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, to study Mahayana Buddhism.

That’s my path. No doubt, if enough people read this, somebody will crop up who’s all like “Well I went to Nepal and I TOTALLY learned how to do hand wavy magic stuff you just got the wrong brand of Buddha Damo the cheap stuff without the MAGIC” and OK, fine, I have met some of those people. They are welcome to their beliefs. And you can have those arguments within Buddhist circles, they’re absolutely part of the dialectic learning process Buddhist teaching guides students through.  Because from some angles, Buddhism can seem quite magical. Which is why it’s important to remember that it isn’t.

When the Buddha was asked about things like magic powers, he always had the same reply. And he got asked a lot. India of 2500 years ago, around when it’s believed the Buddha lived, was a melting pot of every kind of spiritual belief you can think of. Spiritual teachers made a good living wandering the land, giving out all kinds of teachings, with the secrets of magical powers among them. And the Buddha spent years of his life studying these paths, before eventually arriving at the Middle Way described in Buddhism. So when people asked about gaining magical powers, the Buddha would simply say, that’s not what Buddha teaches. Buddha only teaches the way out of suffering. (Buddha talks about himself a lot in the third person. I know, right?)

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Essential Doctor Strange Volume 1. Guess how much?

Doctor Stephen Strange is seeking a way out of suffering. After his hands are shattered, he wants a cure. And most people who come to Buddhism are suffering. It might be a terrible illness. It might be depression. It almost certainly centers on some kind of loss. Loss of power, loss of status, loss of love. All of Buddhist teaching resolves down to the question of suffering, and how best to deal with it. And of course, gaining magical super-powers is a SUPERB way of dealing with suffering. Woosh! Just wave your magic wand and the cause of suffering is fixed! Except when it isn’t. Which is most of the time. One of the reasons I like the Doctor Strange movie is because it doesn’t let the character off the hook that easily. Strange has to accept that his hands will never truly recover. He has to accept his suffering.

The acceptance of suffering is, as best as I can express it, the starting point of Buddhism. You really have lost your job. You really do have a broken arm. You really have lost the person you love. From that acceptance, the pain might transform to something else. Or you might have to accept that it’s going to stay a long time, maybe for your whole life. It’s not easy. Nobody can do it without great attention. And it’s definitely not magic. Quite the opposite, Buddhism teaches its students to engage with the reality of the here and now, as deeply and fully as they possibly can. Which is why there’s a great irony, and no small danger, in how the entertainment industry constantly makes Buddhism a gateway to magic, fantasy and escapism.

But. If we can remember that magic is just a metaphor, a way of talking about things we can’t talk about literally, then like all myths, it can be very useful to think about. The Doctor Strange movie works so well because it’s aware of its own metaphorical meanings, in a way that a story like the vomit inducingly awful Batman vs Superman never even came close to being. If you find the time to see Doctor Strange, I hope you’ll tell me what those wonderfully woven magical metaphors meant to you. I’d love to know!

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The shameful joys of the franchise novel…and why the force is with them

Snobby attitudes to sci-fi and fantasy can mean missing out on great stories amid popular book series – a publishing genre that is sure to grow.

Make of it what you will, but it’s a plain fact of publishing life that more people will read the latest Star Wars franchise novel than all the books shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize put together. The world is a noisy place, made all the more so by the democratising influence of the internet, where it sometimes seems that all seven billion members of the global village have self-published their own book. Confronted with this tumult of competing egos, you can hardly blame the average punter for sticking with entertainment brands scorched into their psyche by the lightsabers of multibillion-dollar marketing budgets.

“with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills.”

The parochial world of literary fiction tends to deal with mass-media franchises in the same way it deals with genre fiction, comics and the other narrative arts that eclipse it by magnitudes for size, influence and profit margins: by giving them the silent treatment. This isn’t an entirely stupid strategy. Literary fiction may very well touch parts of the human condition its more successful cousins fail to reach. But then it may not, and the arrogant assumption that novels published within a franchise that has touched the hearts and minds of millions have nothing to tell us is … well … arrogant.

What franchise novels can certainly do well is compelling storytelling. And at their best, they can do it much better than the franchises that spawned them. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire introduces the malevolent Grand Admiral Thrawn to the extended Star Wars universe, where he remains hands-down its best antagonist. One of the many problems with the vastly overrated Star Wars movies (Empire being the moment of genius that rescues the entire franchise) is the absurd incompetence of their villains. Any evil galactic Empire that can be brought low with a missile up the exhaust pipe is not worthy of the name.

Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy follows the painstaking progress of Admiral Thrawn as he leads the remnants of the Imperial fleet against the ascendent New Republic. Have no doubt, Thrawn is a merciless villain, but Timothy Zahn’s smart decision to cast the bad guys as the underdog gives the entire trilogy a compelling edge that the movies simply lack. With rumours about the latest Star Wars trilogy swirling, Disney even went as far as denying Zahn’s masterful narrative will play any part in the new movie. Which is shame, as the brinksmanship of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a lot more entertaining than the predictable in jokes and cheesy pastiche of yet another JJ Abrams fangasm.

The kingdom of the franchise novel extends far beyond spin-offs from cinema and TV. You can keep your Lord of the Rings and even your Game of Thrones. If I could take only one fantasy novel with me to read in the dungeons of Mordor it would be Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil – better known to most readers as the redoubtable Kim Newman. In the early years of Games Workshop the creators of the Warhammer franchise it published a short run of novels that added some depth of charcater to the two-dimensional world of tabletop gaming. Drachenfels was by far the best, a little known gem of fantasy fiction still unrivalled in its canon.

Detlef Sierck is a playwright of Shakespearean talent with the ego of a young Orson Welles. He is pulled out of debtors prison by Oswald von Konigswald to recreate in theatre the prince’s youthful quest to destroy the great enchanter Constant Drachenfels. What follows is a taught phantasmagoria as the story within the story weaves itself back in to reality. Imagine the gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula movies merged with the ironic humour of PG Wodehouse and you get a sense of Drachenfels. As with much of the best franchise writing, it’s the constraints and limitations of the Warhammer world that seemed to bring out the best in Newman’s writing.

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John Scalzi’s Redshirts boldly takes the franchise novel to explore strange new territory in a universe bearing some resemblance to that of the original Star Trek. The story follows the journeys of the low-ranking members on board a starship crew as they come to realise they are living in a television show. It’s a metafictional homage to the classic sci-fi serial, the writing of which gave Scalzi an insight in to the work of the franchise writer.

“I think there is a snobbery toward franchise writing that’s wholly unwarranted,” Scalzi says. “It’s a ridiculous double standard. Franchise writing requires flexibility, speed, the ability to adhere to canonical guidelines while still producing entertaining work. That’s a specific skillset.”

And writers with that skillset can make a solid living in the franchise novel market. That’s a reality that might come as a shock to their literary compatriots. The big names of franchise writing such as Peter David and Alan Dean Foster may struggle to command much literary respect, but with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills. Of course that kind of success can become a honeytrap of its own, with success in the franchise marketplace rarely translating to acclaim for a writer’s original material.

As the world becomes noisier the franchise novel will only become more powerful, and take on new forms. Writing is seen as a solitary enterprise, but the shared worlds of franchises like Star Wars are one way that artistic collaboration can help to lift a creation above the high noise-to-signal ratio of modern life. Perhaps instead of dismissing franchises out of hand, the challenge for writers is to find ways to create much better art within them.

Originally published in The Guardian.

Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century?

It’s not science fiction, it’s not realism, but hovers in the unsettling zone in between. From Philip K Dick to Stephen King, Damien Walter takes a tour through transrealism, the emerging genre aiming to kill off ‘consensus reality’

A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.

“Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic.”

It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto. Three decades later, Rucker’s essay has as much relevance to contemporary literature as ever. But while Rucker was writing at a time when science fiction and mainstream literature appeared starkly divided, today the two are increasingly hard to separate. It seems that here in the early 21st century, the literary movement Rucker called for is finally reaching its fruition.

Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man.

It’s informative to list a few works that do not qualify as transrealism to understand Rucker’s intent more fully. Popular fantasy or science fiction stories like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games lack a strong enough reality to be discussed as transrealism. Apparently realistic narratives that sometimes contain fantastic elements, like the high-tech gizmos of spy thrillers, also fail as transrealism because their plots and archetypal characters are very far from real. Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic, for a very specific purpose, that seems to have become tremendously relevant for contemporary readers.

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The potential list of transrealist authors is both contentious and fascinating. Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and her novels from Oryx and Crake onwards. Stephen King, when at his best describing the lives of blue-collar America shattered by supernatural horrors. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, among other big names of American letters. Iain Banks in novels like Whit and The Bridge. JG Ballard, as one of many writers originating from the science-fiction genre to pioneer transrealist techniques. Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, among others.

This proliferation of the fantastic in contemporary fiction has at times been described as the “mainstreaming of science fiction”. But sci-fi continues on much as it ever has, producing various escapist fantasies for readers who want time out from reality. And of course there’s no shortage of purely realist novels populating Booker prize lists and elsewhere. Both sci-fi and realism provide a measure of comfort – one by showing us the escape hatch from mundane reality, the other by reassuring us the reality we really upon is fixed, stable and unchanging. Transrealism is meant to be uncomfortable, by telling us that our reality is at best constructed, at worst non-existent, and allowing us no escape from that realisation.

“Transrealism is a revolutionary art form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a ‘normal person’.” Rucker’s formulation of transrealism as revolutionary becomes especially meaningful when compared to the uses transrealism is put to by the best of its practitioners. Atwood, Pynchon and Foster-Wallace all employed transrealist techniques to challenge the ways that “consensus reality” defined who was normal and who was not, from the political oppression of women to the spiritual death inflicted on us all by modern consumerism.

Today transrealism underpins much of the most radical and challenging work in contemporary literature. Colson Whitehead’s intelligent dissection of the underpinnings of racism in The Intuitionist and his New York Times transrealist twist on the zombie-apocalypse novel, Zone One. Monica Byrne’s hallucinatory road-trip across the future of the developing world and the lives of women caught between poverty and high-speed technological change in The Girl in the Road. Matt Haig’s compulsive young adult novel The Humans, which invites the reader to see human life through alien eyes. Transrealism has 30 years of history behind it, but it’s in the next 30 years that it may well define literature as we come to know it.

Originally published by The Guardian.

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Write better sci-fi stories with this simple idea

When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to every possible world! These are all novum of a kind.

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The problem. And it’s a pretty big problem, at least if you’re a jobbing sci-fi author who would like to get read (and hence paid). The problem is that your novum, even when it sounds mighty interesting, is actually boring. There, I said it, novums are fucking insanely dull!

“something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being”

But but BUT Damo! A portal that leads to every possible world sounds really interesting! What did I just say? It SOUNDS interesting. But if it’s actually going to BE interesting for your audience, the novum has to do something much more than just sit around being a cool idea.

All stories, not just sci-fi tales, contain something like a novum. The Oscar winning 1979 movie Kramer vs Kramer isn’t even slightly sci-fi. But the film still has a novum…a couple go through a difficult divorce. But the divorce is only the surface, exterior level of the story. It provides the framework for the much more important story happening on the interior level, as Dustin Hoffman’s character has to finally grow up and take responsibility for home and family. It’s not details of divorce proceedings that make Kramer vs Kramer compelling, it’s the inner human journey, the EMOTIONAL journey, that the audience are captured by.

How hard do I have to argue to persuade you that a story that’s actually about divorce proceedings, with long detailed speeches from lawyer characters about the details of marriage contract law, will be quite boring? Then why would a story about a portal that connects all world’s, with achingly long monologues by competent scientists on the details of multiverse physics, be any more interesting? If the story is about its novum, it’s going to bore the hell out of people, because the novum is only intellectually interesting.

Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the HUGE problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.

What’s the solution? Remember the portal that connects all worlds? If you find that, or another novum interesting, it’s because something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being. Spend some time sitting with your emotional response to the novum that inspire you. A portal that connects all worlds might give those who step into it the chance to be all people. That’s the seed of an emotional experience. Let it grow, and it might one day shiver your audience’s soul.

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