Category Archives: The Escape Art

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

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. Its 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 Atwood’s novel being nominated for numerous scifi awards, she has never accepted that label either.

Science fiction fans have proved less than happy with that refusal to be pigeon holed. 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.

Alternate cover style for The Handmaid’s Tale?

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.

“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.”

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.

A sci-fi bestseller in the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published.

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.

Game of Thrones was not a fantasy show (and that made some fantasy fans angry)

Damien Walter writes on scifi & fantasy for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.

There’s a kind of fantasy novel that fantasy fans tend to like. It features either a young orphan / bastard boy destined to be a king, or an orphaned / abused young woman destined to be a queen.

If these sound familiar, it’s likely because you’ve  been following their adventures in the most successful tv show of all time – Game of Thrones – that came to the end of eight seasons and innumerable murders, beheadings, betrayals and incinerations just a few days ago.

The final twists in the narratives of orphan / bastard Jon Snow and orphan / abuse victim Daenerys Targaryen weren’t universally acclaimed. A core of haters have been building towards the boil as seasons 7 & 8 failed to fill their expectations. Who are these haters? What did they want from Game of Thrones?

They are are fantasy fandom. And they wanted Game of Thrones to culminate in high fantasy fashion.

Because of my occasional column on sci-fi & fantasy books for The Guardian, I follow many fantasy authors and fans on Twitter. As the final episodes of GoT aired this year, the fantasy writing community seemed to descend into what I can only call a psychotic rage. GoT’s show-runners were failing to meet their expectations, and fantasy fandom was not happy!

But the things that displeased fantasy fans about Game of Thrones, may well be exactly the qualities that made the show and its finale the highest rated in HBO’s illustrious history. Billions of people of all kinds around the world have been drawn into the epic battle for Westeros, not because it had knights, dragons, wizards and magic in, but because it was a great human drama that ALSO happened to feature the tropes of fantasy fiction.

Game of Thrones show-runners David Benioff & D.B.Weiss, much maligned for failing fantasy fans, did an outstanding job keeping the GoTs wider audience guessing about how the show would conclude. They pulled off this trick by playing these two sets of expectations against each other.

On the one hand we’ve all seen Lord of the Rings and we all know how a standard fantasy story ends. The bastard orphan becomes king! I think we can all be grateful that GoT didn’t repeat the sentimental end of Return of the King. On the other hand, we all know that drama tends to tragedy. But none of us could guess ahead of time which direction GoT would take.

This dichotomy – between the hackneyed traditions of generic fantasy, and the wider possibilities of tragic drama – was embodied in the characters of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, the two *most* archetypal characters in a show heavy with archetypal characters, and the only two characters who seemed to have a free pass from the brutal logic of GoT.

In a show famous for almost randomly killing off any character the nefarious imagination of George R R Martin saw fit, Jon and Dany had what we might call “plot armour”. For the Song of Ice and Fire to ever end, icy Jon and fiery Dany would have to meet. And until they did, it seemed that nothing in Westeros or Esteros could kill either…at least not for long.

So the real question, as GoT accelerated towards its finale, was this. Would Dany and Jon’s plot armour see them through to the end, and the fulfilment of their Kingly / Queenly destinies? Or would they finally yield to the brutal realities of their world, and arrive at a more tragic ending?

SPOILER ALERT.

It was the latter.

On its own, the “failure” of GoT to fulfil the cliche genre expectations of fantasy fans might not have lead to such a borderline pathological response from some people. But the delivery of Dany and Jon’s tragic endings was made all the more brutal by an extra factor. Dany and Jon didn’t just reach bad ends, on the way, they revealed themselves to be far from the heroic characters many of us were invested in.

George R R Martin in interview has repeatedly asserted that he wanted to write a fantasy that, unlike Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where good and evil are literally manifested as different races, would show how good and evil run through the heart of every character. And in the wonderfully complex characters of Cersei, Arya, The Hound and even Joffrey, we saw just that.

Game of Thrones took arch-villains like Jaime Lannister and made them heroes, and moral men like Stannis Baratheon and twisted until they committed the worst of all crimes. But again, Dany and Jon stood outside the moral complexity that made GoT so remarkable. They were both simply…good – until, finally, they weren’t.

The orphan / bastard hero Jon Snow, for all his prowess as a fighter, simply lacked the strength to be a good king. Had he been stronger he could have taken the throne and ruled wisely. Instead he gave it up to a Queen he believed in…bad call Jon Snow! Leaders can’t always make the moral choice, sometimes they must make the strong choice.

Dany certainly had the strength to lead, as we learned when she nuked Kings Landing, a decision I dissected over on my YouTube channel. But it was the revelation of the evil that ran through her heart which, I have the feeling, really infuriated those who were most invested in her heroic journey.

Daenerys represented a worldview that’s become very common in our real world today. It’s the worldview of the activist, the campaigner, the fighter for social justice. Dany doesn’t just want to win the Game of Thrones, she wants to “break the wheel” that keeps the game turning, century after century. And with that high moral goal, any action, however evil, can be justified.

“Game of Thrones did not fulfil the expectations of generic fantasy – thank ye Gods!”

I’ve spent a lot of my life in activist and social justice circles. I know the mindset, from long years of holding it. And so, like millions of people, I loved seeing Dany destroying one city full of slave owning “Masters” after another. And like millions of others, I didn’t think too hard about the dark side of those actions. So when Tyrion, in the GoT finale, lists the crimes of The Breaker of Chains, it was a brilliant moment of dramatic revelation. Later in the episode, when Arya claims to “know a killer” when she sees one, the message is driven home. The evil in Dany’s heart is as powerful as the very worst in Westeros.

It’s all too tempting to believe that our high motives justify our means – any means – to reach the utopia of a better world. Dany certainly believes it, and that leads her to expose the worst of herself. It’s possible that some of us today, caught up in real world political causes for which we sometimes overstep the line, aren’t ready to see our heroes, like Queen Daenerys Targaryen, dethroned.

Game of Thrones did not fulfil the expectations of generic fantasy – thank ye Gods! Instead it played for a much, much more morally complex ending, which the audience who were ready for it were truly satisfied by. As bloated productions of other fantasy bestsellers stagger towards our screens, it’s worth wondering if their producers realise that Game of Throne’s success had little to do with fantasy, and everything to do with the truth and reality of great dramatic storytelling.

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The top 5 Iain M Banks novels

Over three decades after they were first published, the Culture novels of Iain M Banks are more popular than ever.

Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.

But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his literary fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because of his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.

These are my top five Culture novels, but I could have included at least five more. I’d put Use of Weapons at six, which might perplex fans of Banks at his most gung-ho. Seven would be short-story collection The State of the Art, which contains only brief glimpses of the Culture. Matter (eight), Inversions (nine) and Surface Detail (10) all have their own strengths, but lack the genius of Banks at his best – which I think you’ll find here:

 

 

 

Five: The Hydrogen Sonata
The final published Culture novel was a return to top form for Banks. The Gzilt are ready to “sublime” to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled. It’s the most openly satirical of all Banks’s SF novels, offering an angry critique of “third-way” liberal leaders like Tony Blair. But the star of the show is the Mistake Not, a Culture ship of “non-standard” type IE packing lots of high-level weaponry. It shows exactly how tough the utopian Culture can be.

Four: Excession
Minds – sentient thinking computers – are the secret stars of the Culture novels, but here they take centre stage. What do virtually immortal, super intelligent AIs do for fun? Among other things they play out decades-long plots to topple less developed, more barbaric civilisations. But even Minds sometimes run up against opponents they can’t outwit. Featuring the Affront, a race literally named for how outrageously evil they are, this is Banks at his most playful, comedic and inventive.

Three: Consider Phlebas
After almost drowning the hero in sewage in it’s opening scene, the first published Culture novel goes on a rip roaring killing spree across the major sights of the Banksian universe. Space pirates, ringworlds, cannibal cultists, a lethal card game, and a Planet of the Dead… the Culture is shown through the eyes of those who hate and fear this machine lead society, creating by far the darkest of all Banks’s science fiction writing.

Two: The Player of Games
Both a love poem to the joy of game play, and a warning against the psychology of the game player, the story of the Culture’s best gameplayer, who is on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world hierarchies, is the most complete and accessible book in the Culture series. This makes it a good starting point for the Iain M Banks neophyte, and also the first book I recommend to non-science fiction readers curious about the genre.

One: Look to Windward
I suspect that Look To Windward was Iain Banks showing off at the peak of his talents – and what a great show it is. The meddling Culture have accidentally set off a caste war in a civilisation they were trying to liberate. A young, high born officer, maimed in battle and broken by grief, is manipulated to commit a terrorist attack in revenge against the Culture. Meanwhile, an exiled composer creates a symphony to mark the light of an ancient super-nova, seen at two points and six centuries apart, by the immortal Mind who blew the star up. The fact that half the cast are six limbed tiger-like predators somehow only adds to the poetry. Look to Windward is where Banks’s interleaving of science fiction imagery, and literary themes,reaches it’s own symphonic climax, making it not just the greatest Culture novel, but perhaps the greatest ever science fiction novel.

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

Damien Walter writes on scifi & fantasy for The Guadian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.

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.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

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.

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Science Fiction vs SciFi vs SF: what is the true definition?

If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.

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In perhaps the all time most fiercely contested fight over an acronym ever, fans have been declaring sides on the Science Fiction vs SciFi vs SF debate for almost five decades. But, I hear the still sane among you declare, what does this even mean? And why should you care?

For the ever growing army of writers, bloggers, editors, critics, academics and just plain old obsessive fans of this thing that may (or may not) be called sci-fi, there is at least some method in this madness. Each name and definition reveals a different aspect of the immense creativity sheltering within sci-fi. Or SF. Or whatever the hell it’s called!

So, here is a brief glossary of the various competing definitions of sci-fi. Much of this may reveal some bias on my part, so please feel free to correct me where I have strayed from the facts as you understand them.

Science fiction n by the late 1930s, stories featuring space rockets and robots had been around in the pages of pulp magazines for a long time. It was then that influential editor John W Campbell hit upon the brilliant marketing strategy of calling these stories “science fiction”, thereby claiming a veneer of scientific credibility for the genre. The idea stuck, and is the reason many readers now insist science fiction must be based on real science.

Hard SF n not satisfied with claiming scientific credibility, many writers of made-up stories further distinguish their work by only making up stories based on ideas drawn from the hard sciences. In particular, physics. Unless, that is, they happen to need a faster-than-light engine to transport characters across the universe, in which case they just ignore physics all together. See also aliens, time travel etc.

Sci-fi n Star Wars made “sci-fi” big business. But for many, it is not true science fiction because it has no basis in science. In fact, most of what the general public thinks of as science fiction is viewed with some disdain by core science fiction fans, who dismiss it as “sci-fi” or “skiffy”. Sci-fi became an early catch all term for many related things, like video games and RPGs, that are now more often called Geek or Nerd Culture.

SF abbreviation because science fiction fans didn’t like “sci-fi”, they started abbreviating what they did like to “SF”. Pronounced “ess eff”, not “sniff”. Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means “science fiction” before then correct people when they say, “Oh, you mean sci-fi,” which tends to annoy both parties. If someone says “I read / write SF” you know you’re talking to a true believer.

Speculative fiction n now things get complicated. Because lots of science fiction writers don’t actually have any science in their SF, they call it “speculative fiction” instead. To make matters worse, even though it’s specifically not science fiction, speculative fiction likewise gets abbreviated to SF. This has also become the default term for literary writers who want to write fiction with science in it, but without calling it science fiction.

So, to recap. Science fiction is a genre consisting of made-up stories with science in. Unless the stories are sci-fi, which doesn’t have science but is what most people think of as science fiction. Unless it’s called SF, of course, which most people think means “San Francisco”. Or speculative fiction, which is what posh people call sci-fi.

Phew! Right, now then.

Fantasy n (‘fæntsi) one solution would be to say that, because all these stories are primarily made-up or imagined by the writer, they are all kinds of fantasy. Problem is, because of JRR Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, most people think “fantasy” refers to stories with elves in. They therefore get confused if the word is also used to talk about stories with rockets in. Fantastika has been mooted, mostly by the critic John Clute, as an altertive catch all term, but sounds a little too much like a really good curry

I could continue with definitions of cyberpunk, steampunk, weird fiction, horror, urban fantasy, new weird, new wave … the list goes on. They’re all part of what makes [insert preferred collective noun] such an oddball and fascinating community to be part of, and create stories in.

But I did say there was method in this madness. Boil this insanely complex and largely pointless argument down to its essentials, and you arrive at something quite interesting. Is it enough for a story to be purely the product of its creator’s imagination? Or should a story instead be extrapolated from an external, rational and scientifically provable truth? In a world starkly divided between reason and fantasy, it’s an intriguing question to ask.

Originally pubished in The Guardian.

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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There’s a great gamer novel to be written. Ready Player One isn’t it

 

There have been many great American novels. The Grapes of Wrath. The Great Gatsby. Underworld. The idea, at this point in literary history, has become a kind of self referential in joke. The great American novel is what young, over-intense MFA students yearn to write. But it’s still useful as an indicator of what we turn to the novel for – the truth.

Or, falling short of that lofty goal, an at least partially accurate insight into reality.

ready-player-one-book-cover

Ready Player One is not a novel anyone will ever turn to for insight into reality. It’s an escapist fantasy in the very lowest definition of the term. A story that doesn’t just create a fantasy world for its readers to slip into, but idolises the entire project of escaping into fantasy. Total immersion in fantasy isn’t just central to the world of Ready Player One, it’s how that world is saved.

Which is really a shame. Because if there is one sub-culture in the strange ecosystem of early 21st life that really deserves the insight of a great novel, it’s gamers.

Not simply because games are popular. In the casual sense everyone is a gamer now. Candy Crush seems to have more players than the extant population of the planet. But because within that culture spanning identity are a subset of people who are, in a far more intense sense, GAMERS.

“If I sound like a superior snobby a*hole about the negative effects of video games, it’s only because I’ve been there.”

I’ve been both. These days I play a few games of online chess a week. Like an alcoholic in recovery, I know my limits. Almost twenty years ago I was, for a short period, the world champion of a browser based strategy game called Stellar Crisis, a task that ate hundreds of hours I should have been spending on undergraduate studies. Three years later, a few days into a Counter Strike binge that would stretch over eight weeks, that would incite lower back problems I still suffer with today because of eighteen hour gameplay sessions, I was fired for no showing at my (admittedly crappy) job.

If I sound like a superior snobby a*hole about the negative effects of video games, it’s only because I’ve been there.

We live in a mass society. The world population, in my lifetime, has gone from 4 billion, to 7.6 billion people. The old world where, for better or worse, we all knew our place, within a community, nation and culture, is long gone. Now there are billions of us living in vast megacities whose only sense of identity comes from the media. From the tv shows we watch, and the video games we play.

“Gamers, whether they can see it or not, are the world’s underclass.”

Gaming, I think, is at the heart of this crisis of identity. We find in games an identity we can adopt  for a time. We find belonging and community in MMORPGs that we may never find in the world. We find status and, for the rare pro players, even wealth. And as global population rockets off towards 12 billion, we’re going to find ourselves in a world where billions of people live realer lives in games than in reality.

Which is a really fucking huge problem. Because gamers, whether they can see it or not, are the world’s underclass. It’s not the 1% of billionaires or the creative / professional class living vicariously in video games. Because those people get to live out their fantasies for real. No, gamer culture, with few exceptions, is the escape valve for people trapped in low pay service jobs.

Now THIS is a reality that needs a great novel writing about it. Gamer culture needs a Charles Dickens or a Victor Hugo, not an Ernest Cline. The drama of lives lived in poverty, serving coffee to your tech bros overlords, then “escaping” into the fantasy worlds of video games (made by the same tech bros) between shifts. And with no hope of this leading to a saviour-of-the-world conclusion. No, this is your life, a hero in games, but in reality, a servant.

The great gamer novel is yet to be written.

But damn do we need it.

How does M John Harrison enter a story?

M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of New Worlds he was integral to the new wave of SF alongside authors like J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock.

He’s also out and out the most skilled storyteller working between genres today. In this video essay I take a deep-dive into Harrison’s recent short story collection to answer the question, how does Mike Harrison enter a story?

Read the short story collection You Should Come With Me Now: http://amzn.to/2FRLWT0

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Is there any such thing as Geek Culture?

There is no end, it seems, to the impotent outrage of geek dudes who feel hard done by because scifi films no longer exclusively feature geeky white dude protagonists. Here’s the latest dumb s*&t from those guys:

So, no. Of course, Ready Player One is not the “geek Black Panther” and I spend all of five minutes taking that idea apart in my video response.

 

Geek Non-Culture

We use the term “geek culture” as a shorthand, it’s useful in as far as it indicates the nexus of scifi movies, genre tv and books, comics, RPGs, video games and various other geeky shit.

“Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands.”

But we might be better off calling it “geek non-culture”. Geek isn’t a cultural identity. It’s where many people end up because they no longer have a cultural identity, and instead fill that void with products that were mass marketed to them in the 80s and 90s.

Many of us today construct a cultural identity from a cross section typically featuring things like D&D, WWF wrestlers, superheroes and Staurday morning kids cartoons. The stuff we grew up with, on tv and in advertising.

This stuff is more than an entertaining distraction for many “geeks”. For millions of people who grew up in vacant suburbs, ghostly dormitory towns, and mass society of the 50s onwards, geek culture has become their surrogate culture.

I’m not here to kick that coping strategy in the nuts. It’s ok to do this. But it’s really important to recognise that these things we’ve formed an intense emotional attachment to don’t belong to us, or to the “geek” community. They belong to a handful of multinational corporations – and soon will all belong to Disney – who milk them for every cent they are worth.

Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands. Turning up for the new Spielberg movie is like paying $30 to have McDonalds and Nike advertisements shoved down your throat, except the brands in question are slightly smarter about hiding away in “beloved” video games and kids cartoons.

 

We can rebuild you, Geek Culture.

A movie like Black Panther isn’t just important because it comes from a black creative team. It’s also part of a powerful movement to reclaim these corporate owned icons for the communities who value them. The recent Star Wars movies, Ghostbusters reboot and franchises like Doctor Who are all being powerfully influenced by the geek community.

Geeks have forcefully determined that the cultural product made for us should reflect who we really are – which is an epicly diverse assortment of people from all around the globe. Contrast that to the era of “geek culture” through the 00s and 90s, as celebrated in Ready Player One, when geeks were depicted exclusively as young white men, because the media corporations decided this yielded the greatest profit margins.

I don’t believe there was any such thing as Geek Culture…until very recently. We the geeks, people of all kinds, are MAKING geek culture. We’re making it by pressuring big media corps into making diverse content. We’re making it by supporting the creators we love on Kickstarters and Patreon. And we’re making it by having a real critical discussion about our culture, and what we want it to represent

Some people, mostly alienated young white men, hate that this critical discussion is happening. So, we end up with nonsense like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies. But let’s be clear. Black Panther and Star Wars are far, far more representative of geek culture today than Ready Player One, which in 2018 feels exactly like what it is – a relic. If any movie is the geek Black Panther…it’s Black Panther.

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Diagram of Geek Culture by Julianna Brion. http://juliannabrion.tumblr.com

Five questions the new Blade Runner must answer

Any Blade Runner fan who doesn’t have mixed feelings about the Blade Runner 2049 sequel probably isn’t much of a fan. Hollywood sequels have a bad track record of course. And while the presence of Harrison Ford might encourage some to hope for a sequel as mighty as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many of us also (vaguely) remember Indiana Jones and Crystal Skullymajig.

But let’s be crystal clear about one thing. Blade Runner has a strong claim to greatest ever scifi movie ever (with only 2001: A Space Odyssey really in contention for that crown). It also has a good shot at greatest ever movie, no exceptions. Agree with those claims or not, Blade Runner is a profoundly important story, with a place in our cultural life that only a very few works of art will ever reach. The chance to revisit that story is profoundly exciting.

These are my personal questions, going into Blade Runner 2049, that will act as a bellwether of the story’s quality. If the answers to these questions are absent, I suspect the film will be an empty, pretty husk. If they are present, even if the film is not the masterpiece of the original, there will be something there to satisfy me.

Did Rachel live?
A story that ends with the words “it’s a shame she won’t live” begs the question, which audiences will all be taking into the sequel, “did she live?” Rachel faces the same fate as Roy Batty et al. But while we saw them fail and die, and while we were told no solution existed, it remains possible…perhaps even probable…that Rachel survives. A high profile spat between Sean Young, who plays Rachel, and the Blade Runner producers, now looks like it might have been manufactured to cover secret scenes filmed by Young for the sequel. If so, the natural question becomes, what did Rachel do next? I think it’s very likely that the fate of the Blade Runner world in this sequel will be deeply determined by Rachel’s fate.

Is Deckard a replicant?
Most Blade Runner fans are aware of the popular theory, suported by Ridley Scott, that Deckard is himself a replicant. The prime evidence for this is the unicorn dream sequence, restored to later edits of the movie, and the origami unicorn left outside Deckards apartment, suggesting that his dreams – like Rachels – are known to his creators. While it remains a theory at the moment, Blade Runner 2049 will almost certainly confirm it either way.

Blade-Runner

Is Ryan Gosling a human?
No, this isn’t a dig at the acting talents of the Goslingator. He’s no Brando, but he’s waaaay less wooden than Keanu Reeves, and probably in a similar ballpark to the younger Harrison Ford. But as his character is the clear analog to Deckard in the original, we’re all going to be wondering about his humanity. As will he. I think you can expect Gosling’s search for his own human identity to be central to this sequel. That said, if the writers are really ambitious, the film won’t be about Gosling’s character on anything but the surface level.

Story is the operating system of human consciousness.

Are all the humans replicants?
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is the original novel by Philip K Dick that Blade Runner is, very very very loosely, based on. It’s a broken work of genius, less incoherent that other classic PKD novels like Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But it’s still dominated by wild concepts, at the expense of some very shoddy writing and flat pack characters. PKD spins his novel in an even weirder direction when Deckard visits a police station entirely staffed by replicants. The suggestion is that everybody in the world of the novel is a replicant. Story hints about Blade Runner 2049 tantilse with the possibility that it will explore this radical idea.

Can humanity recover its empathy?
Philip K Dick was the greatest myth maker of the 20th century, spinning metaphors for the strange new realities technology has thrown all of us into. Both his novel, and the Blade Runner movie, are modern myths about the human capacity for empathy. Replicants are a fiction, but our capacity to dehumanize and enslave other humans is as great as ever. Blade Runner 2049 has an incredible job to match the original as a treatise on empathy, and our human awareness of our own vulnerability and mortality, without which empathy cannot exist. I wish it luck in the task ;)

Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

In a world built on myth, we can’t ignore the reactionary politics at the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.

“A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.”

On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.

To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.

Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.

Myths are a lens through which we investigate the mysteries of the world around us. Change the myth, and you can change the world – as JRR Tolkien well knew when, alongside other writers including CS Lewis, he began to consider the possibility of creating new myths to help us better understand the modern world – or if not to understand it better, then to understand it differently. Tolkien borrowed the Greek term “mythpoesis” to describe the task of modern myth-making, and so the literary concept of mythopoeia was born.

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Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made by the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.

We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the wish to return to a more conservative society, one where people knew their place, is so popular. It’s the same myth that conservative political parties such as Ukip have always played on: the myth of a better world that has been lost, but can be reclaimed by turning back the clock.

Whatever the limitations of his own myth-making, Tolkien’s genius as a storyteller rekindled the flame of mythopoeia for generations of writers who followed. Today our bookshelves and cinema screens are once again heaving with modern myths. And they represent a vastly diverse spectrum of worldviews, from the authoritarian fantasy of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, to the anti-capitalist metaphor of The Hunger Games. The latter is so potent that the three-finger salute given by Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of freedom. What clearer sign could there be that the contemporary world is still powered by myth?

Originally published in The Guardian.

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.