Category Archives: The Escape Art

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

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. The Last Jedi proves why.

The only thing I’m going to say about The Last Jedi trailer is…it looks just as great as Force Awakens and Rogue One. It’s great to have Star Wars back, and greater than ever. Now if we can just forget the whole decade where it was not great…

“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).

Lego Star Wars Rogue One?

The Last jedi 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 of 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.

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Disney has a history of understanding the long term value of great storytelling. For decades it only released its movies on special occaisions, and shunned video releases for years. It’s a very different company since Pixar’s reverse takeover, but its 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 Hero’s Journey, as told in every culture around the world, recast for the modern 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.

How the Alt-right invaded geek culture

The Alt-right will do anything to outrage the liberal internet, knowing that outrage helps build their growing army of overwhelming white, male, and very geeky, supporters.

Star Trek gave television audiences their first interracial kiss in 1968, and Gene Roddenberry’s vision of mankind’s future continued to champion progressive ideas for many decades. Today “geek culture” is more diverse than ever, reflecting audiences’ hunger for a better world where the Ghostbusters can be women, and even Ms Marvel can be Muslim.

Read more on The Independent.

Bureaumancy. My new favourite genre of fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with being a bureaucrat. So you’re a tiny cog in a machine made of abstract rules, paperwork, and the broken dreams of those who do not understand either. So what? You’re just misunderstood. Without you, nobody would know where to file their TPS reports. Nobody would even know what a TPS report is.

But writers understand. As species of personality go, the writer and the bureaucrat are closely related: they’re deskbound creatures who enjoy the comfortable certainties of Microsoft Office and dazzling us with wordcraft, be it small-print legalese or the impenetrable prose of literary fiction. Of course, Kafka understood the true power of the bureaucrat because he was one – and thus portrayed bureaucracy as a looming, all-powerful presence. The wonderful Douglas Adams imagined an entire planet faking the apocalypse just to get all its middle managers to evacuate in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, while in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, hell itself is one endless system of bureaucratic red tape, where doomed souls are made to sit through every last codicil and sub-paragraph of the rules pertaining to Health and Safety – all 40,000 volumes of them.

Read more.

Big Dumb Objects. Sci-fi’s USP.

We humans love things we can’t explain. Witness the vast array of outlandish claims made about Stonehenge, from ancient calendar to alien stargate, when in all likelihood it was just a big clock or an early marketplace, a neolithic branch of Tesco.

When the unknown is also alien, the mystery only grows more magnetic. Think of that iconic opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: a family of apes wake one morning to find a black monolith looming over them; that had its origins in Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. Did some super-advanced civilisation intercede in the early evolution of intelligent life on earth? Or was the monolith just filming a very special edition of Life on Earth?

Read more on Guardian Books.

It’s not science fiction – it’s systems fiction

Seen in literary fiction as well as SF, this genre weaves together complex debates in a way that can offer a clearer view of the future – think Atwood, DeLillo and Asimov.

Weirdly enough, science fiction is not the best lens through which to examine science fiction. In the 80s, critic Tom LeClair came up with an alternative category for all the weird literary novels that veered into speculative territory: the systems novel. These books pick apart how the systems that keep society chugging along work: politics, economics, sex and gender dynamics, science, ideologies – all can be explored through fiction, especially experimental fiction. LeClair applied this tag specifically to Don DeLillo, but it can be expanded more widely: think Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Umberto Eco, among others.

That may seem like an eclectic bunch to unite under one banner, but the systems novel is ultimately a space for ambitious thinkers, the ones who want to weave complex thoughts into a tastier parcel than some impenetrable academic tome. The dramatic kick in a systems novel is usually found in the points where the different systems overlap: tackling climate change isn’t all about physics, it also about unpicking the economics of a carbon-driven economy, for example.

Read more at The Guardian.

I don’t just want a woman to be Bond, I want a woman to KILL Bond!

Why should we cast a woman as the next James Bond? To prove that women are dangerous and corrupt too. A woman actress as Bond isn’t a fantasy. It’s a chance to give Bond more realism.

A new rumour seems to pop up every week – Idris Elba will be the next James Bond! No, Aidan Turner! Jamie Bell and Tom Hiddleston are the latest men to have faced furious Bond scrutiny, but perhaps we’re all looking in the wrong direction.

We shouldn’t be searching for a man to take Bond’s place. We should be keeping an eye out for a woman.

I agree with many fans that Gillian Anderson would be a perfect Bond. Sure, Tilda Swinton has the mystique, and Emily Blunt has the moves, but Anderson’s onscreen presence embodies the single characteristic that Bond needs above all others. I believe, if her mission depended on it, that Anderson would kill.

I believe, in a word, that she is dangerous.

Read more.

 

Geek critique: Neil Gaiman and Kameron Hurley pick apart pop culture

Two new nonfiction collections – Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats and Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution – present contrasting perspectives on geek culture today. So what’s the state of it?

Geeks were once like Victorian children: seen, but not heard; talked about but mocked, rarely given their own voice. But the newfound popularity of the culture – video games, comics, the mainstream cool of crossover hits such as Game of Thrones or Star Wars – makes geeks some of the loudest voices today. This week, two new nonfiction collections – Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats and Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution – showcase the spectrum of diversity that exists in the culture today.

Read more.