H(A)PPY

Spoiler alert!

H(A)PPY, by Nicola Barker, is a story set in a dystopian future where people’s emotions are regulated and their access to information controlled. The protagonist, Mira A, a musician, stumbles upon the guitar music of Agustin Barrios, a (real) Paraguayan musician from the early 20th Century. His music, and his story, and other fragments of information about Paraguay (all taken by the author from The Paraguay Reader), cause or precipitate or otherwise give a theme to Mira A’s mental disintegration, which ends with her being expelled from her society into exile in the wilderness, where violence and war and disease still exist.

To begin with, this story felt very very familiar. I have, unwittingly, been training myself since childhood to read science fiction and to understand its tropes and themes; it didn’t take long for me to pick up the terminology and to understand what was going on.

All the modern sci-fi trappings are there, smart clothes, 3D-printers, Neuro-Mechanicals (think ‘Electric Sheep’), and Mira A runs on a Power Spot to capture her bio-energy (like the exercise bikes in the Black Mirror episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’).

H(A)PPY has its own technology, there is the ‘Sensor’, which provides information, but is not, according to Mira A, a ‘censor’, because the users effectively censor themselves in the information they ask for. There is also the ‘Graph’ which seems to be both monitor and interrogator, it keeps a constant record of an individual’s internal monologue, the colours of the words changing to reflect the taboo-ness of the word and the concept it represents (these colour changes are in the text of the book itself), and also interrogates the individual on behalf of society over what they are doing at any given moment. Lastly there is the ‘Stream’, which seems to be the output of the Graph, plus continuous surveillance footage, both of which are available for anyone to view (an obvious metaphor for social media).

There are also ‘clamps’, some kind of brain implant. After Mira A’s Graph becomes too erratic, risking an ‘Excess of Emotion’ event, she has her clamps adjusted, she thinks to fix a fault in her ‘Oracular Devices’ (presumably what connects her to Sensor, Graph, and Stream) that is causing her emotional instability, but, obviously from the outside, to ‘fix’ her, which belies the idea of ‘choice’ in this society.

(I find myself having to use terms like ‘seems to be’ and ‘presumably’ to describe the technology, this is not hard SF by any stretch of the imagination.)

There is, though, some ambiguity over whether it is truly a dystopia or a utopia; violence and disease and hunger have been eliminated, but the cost of this is social conformity. Barker effectively spells this all out on the first page:

This is also familiar from many other dystopias and utopias. Not all dystopias are clearly so from the inside; there are the obvious, grim dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, where the main characters know they are oppressed, but there are also dystopias like Brave New World, were everyone is doped up on soma and believes themselves to be happy.

All dystopias are metaphors in one way or another for the real world, and also cautionary tales, while utopias try to offer the possibility of change; both challenge us about what kind of future we want to create.

Utopias can, potentially, be oppressive, More’s original Utopia demanded social conformity, and, as this academic paper points out, utopias such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time may demand too much of some readers, in terms of living differently to the current status quo, and appear dystopian to them – this is not meant to be flippant; I am not sure that I, being institutionalised to my current life, would cope well in such a utopia, but I would still be able to see that it was a utopia, even if I couldn’t live happily in it.

The idea of constant, perfect, happiness is a chimera, something that can only be achieved by drugging or brainwashing the population. In H(A)PPY, the population is expected to ‘choose’ to regulate itself. Being free and being happy are not the same thing.

In The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman, personality is controlled by viruses, Milena, the protagonist, is immune to the viruses, she cannot fit in. In Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, people have machines with which to dial up their emotions. In Ian McDonald’s Out on Blue Six the ‘Compassionate Society’ decides everyone’s role from birth, and causing anyone any kind of pain is a crime. I have vague recollections of reading, as a teenager, a Star Trek: TNG spin-off novel called Gulliver’s Fugitives, which took-off Fahrenheit 451 by describing a totalitarian society that did not just ban reading, but banned any imaginative thinking at all.

Other aspects of H(A)PPY are also familiar from previous dystopias, there is ‘The Unknown’ also called ‘The Simulation of the Real’, outside of society, where war and disease still exist. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (a book which pre-dates and influenced 1984), there is the world outside the ‘Green Wall’ that surrounds the ‘One State’; in Brave New World there is a ‘Savage Reservation’.

Also in We, the buildings are all made of glass, echoing the concept of the Panopticon, and 1984 has its ‘Telescreens’. In H(A)PPY anyone can observe anyone else’s Stream; under constant surveillance (real or imagined) nobody dares to non-conform.

Mira A can escape observation by staring into the light to disable the technology that monitors her; in 1984, Winston Smith has the chance fact that his Telescreen is placed in his home in such a way that he believes he can be unobserved.

It is, perhaps, impossible now to do anything truly original in either utopian or dystopian fiction.

H(A)PPY does differ from all the above-mentioned books, in that Mira A is a very unreliable narrator; it is impossible to work out exactly what is going on, because most of it is happening inside Mira A’s head, rather than the ‘real’ world she inhabits. Is any of it real? Are any of the other characters, or their actions real? Does she imagine/hallucinate the whole thing?

Perhaps, despite its conformation to dystopian sci-fi tropes, it is best understood not as social commentary at all, but as metaphor for creative rapture, and the social isolation and internal disintegration that can follow; or as mental illness following social isolation.

This interpretation is supported by the accusation levelled against Mira A that she wants a narrative, and the refrain ‘terrible discipline’ that appears throughout the text, with reference to her and Agustin Barrios’ practices as musicians.

On the other hand, this is something science fiction can do (see this paper on the science fiction and critical writing of Samuel R. Delany); science fiction can make literal what literary fiction does metaphorically: time slips, reality distortions, encounters with alien others. But comparing Barker to Delany does Barker no favours.

The Paraguayan texts interspersed throughout the narrative, while interesting in their own right, seem arbitrary, they are connected to the story only because they inspired the author in real life; any artist, any ‘exotic’ culture, could fill that role.

H(A)PPY lacks any real sense of threat or menace, there is no equivalent to O’Brien or ‘Room 101’ from 1984. Mira A does get her fingers broken, right at the end of the book, before she is cast out into The Unknown, but we don’t know how it happens because we only see her hallucinations of that time.

H(A)PPY won the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize which is awarded to fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the form.”

The text is very colourful – we are effectively reading Mira A’s Stream throughout, but it doesn’t seem all that inventive to me. Jeff Noon’s Cobralingus (2001) plays with text in a similar way, illuminated texts go all the way back to the Middle Ages, and many children’s picture books will do more exciting things with illustrations and text.

If I’m being completely honest, the mathematical illustrations:

Just made me think of this meme:

But the real question is, was it a good book? Was it a gripping, compelling story, did I feel emotionally invested in the fate of Mira A? In all honesty, no, not really. It felt very thin and shallow, if I wasn’t thinking about it now to write a review I probably wouldn’t be thinking about it at all (and as you can see, from the above, I was thinking just as much about every other dystopian/utopian book I’ve ever read).

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I Don’t Believe in Magic

A few months ago, I almost finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy. I gave up half-way through the final book because I realised I just didn’t care; I didn’t care about the story, the characters, or the made-up worlds, and a big part of the reason I didn’t care is due to the fact that I just don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe that any combination of words, hand gestures, potions or wands can alter reality, and if I can’t get past that I can’t invest in the story.

At least science fiction is potentially exploring the realms of the possible, building something, inventing something. Science fiction can answer the question ‘how can we live?’, which is really the only question worth asking or answering.

I was reminded of my uninterest in magic over the Christmas break, watching Bright on Netflix with my family. The problem with Bright is that its world building is completely shallow, there are elves and orcs (and fairies and centaurs and dragons), and they have always been there, out in the open, not hidden away like in True Blood or Buffy, but human society is still exactly the same (so much the same that the movie Shrek still got made in this alternate reality).

In Bright African-American culture is portrayed as being the same as it is in the real world, implying that the history of the Transatlantic slave trade and the colonisation of the Americas and the West Indies was the same; but if orcs exist as an under-class (one white cop boasts about his ancestors slaughtering orcs in Russia 200 years ago), why would Europeans have needed an industrial trade in slaves from Africa?

Surely if magic were real, and other humanoid races have been living alongside humans for all of human history, the history of Earth and the human race would being entirely different? The elves in Bright are portrayed as an elite, as ruling over humans; what were the elves doing during World War II? Were they on the axis or allied side, or were they ruling on both sides? In which case, what was it fought over? What were the elves doing during European colonialism, during the crusades, during the reign of Alexander the Great? Are they supposed to be Uber-Aryans who slot in above Europeans so that, somehow, the whole history of the world doesn’t change at all, except there are dragons and fairies flying around as well?

This is a problem I have with any fantasy story supposed to be set in a fictional version of the real world (as opposed to an entirely invented secondary world), how to reconcile magic with the long long history of human atrocities?

Do Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians not have magic, or is it just crap compared to European magic? The same with Africa, India, the Middle East, and Asia. Were there Nazi wizards? Were there no Jewish wizards? Did all the chief wizards and witches see the Holocaust (or any other atrocity) happening, but decide it wasn’t important enough a reason to interfere in the ‘mundane’ world?

The Magicians did touch on this, a little, there was a mention of Polish magic books being destroyed by German magic books, and a joke about the 2000 US election being manipulated by magicians for a bet (not such funny reading in 2017), but it’s still inadequate.

The problem with magic is the same as the problem with religion, if there are higher powers capable of manipulating things, how do you account for all the bad things that happen in the world?

The idea of magic being real in this world, is more awful than the idea of there being no magic at all.

Blade Runner 2049

Massive Spoiler Alert!

I really did not enjoy Blade Runner 2049. Yes, it is visually stunning, but it’s all style and no substance, it felt like a series of set-pieces, just showing off the special effects rather than telling a meaningful story.

In spite of the stunning visuals, it’s very dull; I saw it last Saturday and wrote a first draft of this post the next day, and I can honestly say that in the intervening week, none of the imagery has ‘haunted’ me in anyway. At three hours including all the trailers, it is physically arduous to sit through.

It is sleazy and gratuitously violent. Yes, the original Blade Runner is also sleazy and violent, and it is set in a dystopian world, but there is a difference between creating a film about a violent and misogynist future and using images of violence and misogyny to titillate the audience; why did I have to watch a scene of a naked women being stabbed in the abdomen by Jared Leto’s character, just to prove how crazy and evil he was?

There is another scene where an AI’s female avatar syncs with a replicant ‘pleasure model’ (a euphemism for a sex slave) to sexually service K, 2049’s blade runner (his identity as a replicant is made clear from the start of the film). If this is moving at all it is only because it is pathetic, the AI is programmed to please its owner, and both replicants are conditioned to not feel emotions; if it is not pathetic it is just more titillation.

The story itself is also disappointing; while the original Blade Runner asks interesting questions about memory and identity and self, Blade Runner 2049 instead goes with cod mysticism, and the questions it raises about the nature of the replicants just show how nonsensical it all is to begin with, enough to spoil the original film as well.

At this point I am going to put this rest of the review under the fold, because I am going to be spoiling a lot of the plot.

Continue reading “Blade Runner 2049”

San Junipero’s Emmy wins

Spoiler Alert!

Really pleased to see Black Mirror: San Junipero win the ‘Best TV Movie’ Emmy, and Charlie Brooker win the ‘Writing for a limited series or film or drama’ Emmy for writing it.

I subscribed to Netflix specifically because of the third series of Black Mirror, and watched all the episodes sometime before Christmas last year. I was particularly impressed by San Junipero at the time, but never got around to writing about it (I’ve let my subscription lapse, so can’t re-watch right now).

San Junipero contains a genuine humanism and compassion (not two words one would often associate with either Charlie Brooker or Black Mirror!). What I particularly liked about it was that is uses virtual reality, not as a way to escape real life, but as a way to get a second chance at it; the VR world is a medium for a real intersubjective relationship between two people, not a person and a set of algorithms pre-programmed to do whatever the consumer wants. I also liked the way it treats seriously religious/spiritual questions around uploaded personalities and souls, which is not something I think science fictions deals with often. It’s also very cleverly written, there are lots of incidental details that make sense once you realise what’s actually going on.

(Image from here)

Research Matters!

Front Row this evening on BBC Radio 4, interviewed Peter Kosminsky about his new TV drama The State, a TV drama about the very serious and controversial subject of IS. Kosminsky said that he spent 18 months researching before he started writing, and that he had an “experienced research team” – amazing isn’t it, research matters!

(That’s it, I have nothing more to add, I just want this noted down where I can find it again easily.)

The Handmaid’s Tale

Spoiler alert!

I watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4, and saw the final episode last weekend.

While it is good TV, I find it interesting that The Handmaid’s Tale, a drama about an invented dystopia full of sexual violence, is seen as ‘important’ TV, while something like Three Girls, a dramatisation of real-world sexual violence that tells us how and why the sexual violence was able to happen and was allowed to happen, while critically acclaimed, has not received the ‘important’ label?

You can write about, or make a TV show about, any subject you like, as long as you do it well and treat it with respect. The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly well made in terms of production values, acting etc., and it does not treat it’s subject as trivial. But I cannot convince myself that it is ‘important’.

Watching TV is not, and never will be, ‘activism’, and when what you are watching is fiction, you are not ‘waking yourself up’ to anything.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale’s popularity due to the fact that we, the audience, can get a vicarious thrill when we know that it isn’t real? But that explanation suggests that it is only entertainment after all.

Or, to be cynical, The Handmaid’s Tale is a little too slick and glossy, the locations, the interiors, the colour palates, the aging down of the Commander and Serena Joy – real life Rochdale will never be as glamourous as this particular rendering of Gilead. Also, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, a middle-class professional woman ‘just like us’ is easier to empathise with than troubled working-class girls whose lives are so removed from our own.

So what did I think of it as an adaptation? I wrote my GCSE English Literature project on The Handmaid’s Tale, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and John Wyndham’s short story ‘Consider Her Ways’, but that was over 20 years ago, and I’m not sure I have read it since then; at one point I knew the book inside out, but I can’t claim that now.

The show became more interesting from episode 6 onwards, with the arrival of the (female) Mexican Ambassador, when the story deviates from the original, and the world-building is expanded.

There are lots of good small details, like the second Ofglen saying how she is better off now than before the coup, when she was a homeless drug-addicted prostitute, and wasn’t going to mess it up.

We are also told about an Aunt defecting to Canada, and Marthas’ plotting sabotage. In the book Offred is completely passive, and we only see the world from her point of view, so these changes are welcome. We see the human toll, not just on the Handmaids, but on the Wives forced into this situation as well. There are lots of these humanising moments, like Serena Joy saying “what did you think would happen” after the previous Offred hanged herself.

The environmental details are an interesting addition; the Gilead officials boast of their carbon-reduction and solar power. Do Gilead’s ‘green credentials’ make it a more ambiguous dystopia, or is this a commentary on ‘green washing’? There are, and have been, many conflicts between human rights and environmental justice in the real word, but there is no direct causal link between the human right’s abuses in Gilead and its environmental improvements – this isn’t the same as the toxic clean-up in the colonies (mentioned once or twice in the show but not shown).

I like that they showed some of the background of the coup, how vulnerable, purposeless young men could be drawn in, and also the self-serving hypocrisy of the Commanders, horse-trading over the status of the Handmaids in order to get their wives on board.

One of the most interesting details is, in my opinion, the characterisation of Aunt Lydia; she is shown genuinely caring about her ‘girls’, even when, on other occasions, she is cutting their eyes out. A ‘bad guy’ who genuinely believes in the righteousness of what they are doing is far more interesting (and informative) than one who is acting out of sadism or cynical self-interest.

Making Gilead multiracial is odd, as if there is no link between religious fundamentalism and white supremacism (which was there in the book) in the US in real life – is an ‘inclusive dystopia’ really something we need as viewers? As this article points out, making it multiracial is a way of bypassing racism without tackling it head-on.

There are changes that don’t really work; using industrial farm equipment to ‘tag’ the Handmaid’s ears is over the top; we microchip pets these days, it feels inserted for shock value only, as if the cattle-prods, amputations, and savage beatings aren’t socking enough.

There are small things like June saying she is allowed to shave her legs once a month. Why, except to give an explanation for the actress’ hairless less? Hairy legs would not fit in with the show’s aesthetics; neither would a scene of her moisturising herself with butter, so those were taken out, as were the ‘Econowives’ in their cheap stripy dresses, that wouldn’t have looked good either.

I found some of the soundtrack choices jarring and inappropriate; it’s a lazy short-cut, to get the soundtrack to do the work of the narrative, to force an emotional reaction, or an association with another work of fiction.

It makes no sense to have fertile women in Jezebel’s, when they are a rare enough commodity to be tradeable on the world market – they could cut off both hands and feet to make them biddable first (I think this threat is in the book), and there would be plenty of young, infertile women to fill the ranks at Jezebel’s – which brings us to another problem (with the book as well) why not just lobotomise them all to begin with? It has historical precedence, but then there would be no story in the first place (there is no story without some contrivance)!

It’s good that they didn’t sanitise Jezebel’s (I was going to write ‘didn’t glamourize’ but I think it was as ‘aestheticised’ as the rest of the series), didn’t play into a ‘happy hooker’ narrative (which would have been easy to do – the Commander says the women prefer it there, but the women don’t actually look happy). The fetishisation of the stump of a woman’s severed hand, and June catching a glimpse of two women dressed up as a Handmaid and a Wife, showed the contempt the men really felt for all women, even the ‘good’ ones. Jezebel’s also has the one and only appearance of an obese character, a woman doubly objectified, first by being dressed in fetish gear, second by only being shown from behind.

Some things have been updated since the 1985 publication of the book. Luke is picked up by ex-army women on the run to Canada; this is another good addition, and another example of showing women not being passive victims. (But I found Luke’s ability to hike through winter forests after being shot in the stomach and surviving his ambulance plunging off a bridge to be ridiculously macho.)

Shutting down all the women’s bank accounts, in our globalised age, would, I imagine, be very difficult, but it is a vital plot component.

While it’s good that the TV show includes more acts of women’s rebellion, I think they overdo it with the Handmaids, with the ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ voice-over, and calling them an army in uniform, and showing them marching in formation. It doesn’t fit with the totalitarianism shown elsewhere.

The big act of rebellion in the final episode is moving; in the book, June is completely passive, and at the end of the series, she is still rescued by men, the same as in the book.

The Red Turtle

Spoiler alert!

This film was such a disappointment! I had high hopes for it, the trailer was gorgeous, and it had Studio Ghibli attached – so what could go wrong?

I should say, first, that the art work is lovely throughout; the detail and realism of the island backgrounds and wildlife are worthy of Studio Ghibli, or other Japanese animation like the films of Mamoru Hosoda. The human characters bear no resemblance to saucer-eyed anime characters, and did seem more ‘French’ to me, reminding me of artists like Moebius (I may simply have been pre-biased by knowing it was a French co-production, or this may just be due to the fact that it does not look like anime or Disney). The sound effects of the natural world, as well as the soundtrack, are also superb.

The story is of a shipwrecked man stranded on a deserted island. After exploring the island, he builds a raft from bamboo and attempts an escape. Some invisible force destroys the raft a short distance from the island, and the same thing happens when he builds a second, bigger raft. A third, still bigger raft is also destroyed, but this time the giant red turtle of the title is there, and the man assumes it is her attacking him and his raft, although she leaves him alone when he is in the water.

After the third attempt, the man sees the red turtle coming up onto the beach. In a fit of rage, he smashes her over the head with a bamboo pole, turns her onto her back, jumps on her, then leaves her to die in the sun.

Later, feeling guilty, he tries to revive her by pouring seawater over her head, and also tries and fails to right her. It doesn’t work and she appears to die, her shell splitting open.

Then, she turns into a woman, unconscious, and still lying inside the split shell. The man feeds her fresh water, and builds a shelter over her. After a brief rain storm she becomes conscious, and runs into the shallow water near the beach.

The man leaves her his shirt and walks away into the bamboo forest, when he returns to the beach, he sees the woman in the water, walking away from the beach, pushing the floating turtle shell in front of her. When she reaches deeper water, she pushes the shell off out to sea and returns to the beach.

The man responds by doing the same with the forth raft he had started to build. Then they sit on a sand bank, and the woman starts breaking open mussel shells, feeding them both. The man has a flashback to smashing her over the head and shudders, the women now appears unafraid of the man.

Then they walk from the beach into a meadow on the island, and both float up into the air together – a PG metaphor for sex, as we then skip to years later, when they have a toddler son.

The rest of the story covers the boy’s growth into manhood; he swims out to sea with other giant turtles (they are all green, but he has red hair like his mother), and eventually swims off with them for good. There is also a tsunami that devastates the island before he leaves.

After the son leaves, the man and women stay on the island together until they are old and grey, then the man dies in his sleep, and the woman turns back into a turtle and heads back out to sea.

The problem I had with the film while watching it, is that it looks like the man is rewarded for his act of cruel violence by being given a compliant, silent, wife. I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt while watching, hoping there would be something later in the story to mitigate it, but I don’t think there was.

There is no talking in the film, and we never see the story from the woman’s perspective (we see the man’s dreams and hallucinations while he is alone on the island, as well as his flashback). There are lots of fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment trapping them in animal form, or stories like The Little Mermaid, where a magical/mythical creature chooses to be transformed into human form (and these transformations are often violent, or come at a cost), but it is never clear which is the case for The Red Turtle, and there is no way the man knew in advance that this is what would happen, it is obviously a complete surprise to him.

It is not clear what force is keeping the man on the island – is the red turtle supposed to represent the spirit of the island itself? But the island, when it is devastated by the tsunami, is shown to be a normal island, at the mercy of the elements. Was she in love with him from the start? But we only see them ‘meet’ right before he attacks her, they build no relationship with her as the turtle – the brief moment when they first see each other is actually quite moving, it feels like two sentient creatures making first contact, but that is then spoilt by the later violence.

I can see what the story is trying to do, it is aiming for mythic resonance, but I don’t think it achieves it. As a whole, the story itself is best at the beginning, when the man is first washed up on the island, as he explores his new environment (and as an aside, ‘mild peril’ my arse! The moment when he is trapped in a deep-sided pool and forced to swim underwater through a very narrow tunnel to escape terrified me!). The details of this first half build the character of the man, he dreams of a bamboo bridge out to sea that he flies along, and hallucinates a chamber orchestra. There is humour to his Sisyphean raft building, and there are cute crabs for comic relief.

The rest of the story, covering decades, feels sparse by comparison, and the woman never really has a character at all. We only see her swimming once as a human, she doesn’t even go into the sea when her toddler son falls into the same pool that his father fell into before. There is one moment, when the man draws pictures in the sand to show the son that there is a whole world beyond the island, and she adds a drawing of a turtle, but it is not clear if this means she misses her people, or if she is just telling her son that there is that option for him as well.

So, I was disappointed, because the need for the violence of the transformation is never explained, and there is not enough character development to see why the woman wants to stay with him anyway. I worry about the message it portrays, that (male) violence (against a woman) is an acceptable prelude to romantic love and devotion.