On not writing positive reviews

What is this blog? A scrap-book, a dialectic (even if only with myself) on the process and purpose of writing? Some way to show that I exist (the name was chosen a decade ago, I wouldn’t be that smart-arsed now)?

Most of the reviews on this blog are negative; if I think something is good, and my opinion fits with the mainstream consensus, I have nothing to add, but if something is getting high levels of praise in the mainstream, and I don’t agree, then I do have something different to say.

Since reading H(A)PPY, I have re-read John Gray’s Soul of the Marionette (non-fiction, but of interest to any serious sf fan), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, and Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections.

I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia (a lovely Library of America edition, borrowed from my local library; from its pristine condition I suspect I am the first person to borrow it). Malafrena, the main novel within the collection, is, to me, the most impressive of Le Guin’s works in terms of worldbuilding: to invent a central European country, and for it to be convincing, takes not just imagination and intelligence, but also knowledge, of hundreds of years of European history, culture, politics, religion, and language (she invents a new language too). Le Guin is also refreshingly modest about what she is doing, in the introduction she says: “Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.”

I do not deny the existence of ‘good writing’, ‘good’ as in aesthetically pleasing, and ‘good’ as in tells some truth about the human experience. Perhaps it is reviews themselves I should be wary of, the whole cynical commercial infrastructure of reviews and interviews and click-bait headlines competing for attention? (It is not a coincidence that the above are all re-reads, or from a known and trusted author.)

I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and it was wonderful to finally read something that stood up to all the hype. It is a very good book, that doesn’t flinch from the ugly psychological truths of oppression and how it can warp a personality. I have read Beloved, I watched the remake of Roots, I can kid myself that I ‘know’ what this period of human history was like. I also trust, from interviews and the book’s afterword, that Whitehead did his research, that even the most gruesome acts of violence have historical precedence.

But, it isn’t science fiction! From reading (or maybe misremembering) reviews, I imagined something like the modern-day London Underground joining up all the towns and cities across the US, and was curious to see how the author made it all fit together, but the technology is contemporaneous – even if nobody was building underground trains in the rural US back then, they theoretically could have (The London Underground was started in the Victorian era, and the earliest trains were steam trains). Despite what I said before, about science fiction’s ability to make the metaphorical literal, I still don’t think this counts as science fiction. As well, I don’t think the underground trains really added anything to the story, the characters could have been moved around conventionally (or stepping through magical portals in the backs of wardrobes) and the story wouldn’t have changed in any meaningful way.

I signed up to Netflix for a month (leave your account idle long enough and they give you another free month!) to watch Annihilation, which is a very effective sci-fi/horror film (the end scenes are absolutely terrifying), but not as profound as some reviewers seem to think. Although it was interesting, briefly, to speculate whether the alien phenomenon is a force of nature that only appears to have a conscious drive because of its encounter with humans, or an alien consciousness attempting first contact or an invasion, I can’t say that any of it stuck with me in any meaningful way.

I watched season 4 of Black Mirror, which I think was stronger overall than season 3, even though there were more episodes relying on tosh-science (you can’t recreate someone’s personality from their DNA, and the claim that we only use a certain percentage of our brain is an old myth), rather than speculative technology, but didn’t have a stand-out episode like ‘San Junipero’; ‘Hang the DJ’ was good, but not as good as ‘San Junipero’.

(I also watched The Cloverfield Paradox, which really is that bad.)

I watched most of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams, which was mostly meh, some episodes were 40 minutes of obvious and dull set up, then 20 minutes of obvious denouement, while others were basically nonsensical. Only ‘The Commuter’ and ‘Safe and Sound’ stood out, the former for the strength of its emotional narrative, the latter because it was most like a Black Mirror episode.

On Saturday, I went to the cinema to see Zama, a fever-dream of colonial hubris that I am not sure I entirely understand yet. It had a genuine dream-like quality, there are only a few explicatory concessions to the audience, which gives it that feeling of having to go somewhere and do something, with no idea where or what or why. There are jumps between places and times, with no sense of where locations are in relation to each other; characters that appear without explanation; in one scene the protagonist walks through a rich lady’s salon, into a stable, into a brothel, which seems to be all one building (I know people lived close to their domestic animals in ‘the past’ but everything seems too close and crowded in that scene); there are objects that take on significance without understanding, a letter, a handwritten book, a pair of desiccated human ears.


“If we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish”

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.

S I Hayakawa

I am not sure that I agree with this, there have been many human cultures without written language, they still have rich, complicated cultures and story-telling traditions.

I find the implication that people who ‘don’t read’ have ‘lesser’ lives to be as snobbish as those bucket lists that claim a person’s life isn’t complete unless they can afford to take expensive holidays or eat at exclusive restaurants.

But, it’s also easy to find a quotable quote out of context and miss its wider meaning.

I found it reading this article on Artificial Intelligence, in a paragraph talking about different forms of learning, learning through direct experience and learning through written instructions, an accumulation of others’ direct experience.

What do people need to know? The Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari desert lived a hunter-gather lifestyle that lasted for over 150,000 years, a lifestyle that required them to have “not only an unwritten almanac of dietary knowledge but […] a library of almanacs.” This knowledge was collected and passed on without writing.

Maybe we can say that literature is the compensation for our atomised modern lives? But that’s not really any different to calling it ‘escapism’.

“A woman at work asked ‘what exactly are you?’”

A woman at work asked ‘what exactly are you?’, I said we are Arab and Sephardi Jews, that my grandparents came from Syria and Turkey, and that some of our ancestors came from Spain and that’s why we spoke French.

From Claudia Roden: A Book of Middle Eastern Food, a BBC Radio 4 dramatisation, by Anjum Malik, of the creation of Claudia Roden’s recipe collection A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

This line jumped out at me because of the sheer complexity of identity it invokes. Is there a single work of fantasy or science fiction out there with an alien race / elf society / invented human ethnicity which contains a fraction of the intricate history, geography, and culture glanced at in that brief description?


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).

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 be 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 any way. 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 the rest of this 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)