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.

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“Is looking at imaginary violence necessary to promote social change?”

Is looking at imaginary violence necessary to promote social change? I find myself puzzled by the logic of this. After all, the majority of viewers of the show are already self-described feminists who are wary of the current administration. And, as many female critics have pointed out, the second season’s obsession with violence makes it a little exhausting for anyone to watch, let alone someone who doesn’t already agree with the show’s ethos.

Sophie Gilbert at the Atlantic wonders whether it is necessary to make viewers endure so much visceral suffering, especially at a cultural moment when “the endless revelations that have emerged since October about abusive men in the entertainment industry and beyond have felt wearying in their range and detail”. Likewise, at the Cut, Lisa Miller considers whether the violence against women we see throughout the series counts as “torture porn”, looking at the ways in which Offred’s suffering is part of a biblical and literary tradition in which “the bravery of the heroine is intensified by her victimhood”.

My frustration with season two is less about its fixation on violent imagery (I’m a fan of lots of violent shows) than on what I see as a veritable lack of imagination in presenting these images in the supposed service of social justice. I don’t think there is any compelling evidence that watching images of female suffering alone will lead to social change and, as Miller points out, one of the reasons that The Handmaid’s Tale images don’t always seem to be galvanizing viewers to action is that they stem from a longstanding tradition of seeing the female experience as inherently painful. It’s hard to imagine a world without female suffering if you keep coming back to these same tired motifs, which are pretty much everywhere in our culture, and I find it frustrating (sexist, even!) that women who have to endure misogyny every day are then scolded for not wanting to see it unfold onscreen.

Arielle Bernstein

“my main interest as a story-teller is in the way that real people behave in different situations, what it really means to be a human being”

I think of myself as a realist, not a fantasist at all, because my main interest as a story-teller is in the way that real people behave in different situations, what it really means to be a human being. If I write fantasy, it’s only because by using the mechanisms of fantasy, I can say something a little bit more vividly about, for example, the business of growing up.

Philip Pullman, interviewed in imagine … Philip Pullman: Angels and Daemons
(also see review of the programme here)

Black Mirror isn’t science fiction anymore!

This is, essentially, ‘Nosedive’:

Sesame Credit, a credit-scoring agency setup by Alibaba and Tencent, is designed to make Orwellian self-surveillance a reality. As well as creditworthiness, it measures political loyalty – based on user data gathered by China’s two biggest internet companies. People with low scores won’t get job offers, loans or high-speed internet; people who network with people with low scores will also get downgraded. The project, which is awaiting regulatory approval, has been decried by human rights groups as a mass surveillance tool. But it is nothing compared to what China is planning with artificial intelligence. Last month, the Chinese state issued a strategy designed to achieve global leadership in AI by 2030. As part of the plan, the private sector is ordered routinely to share its user data with the state. This puts China in the unique position among major powers of having no formal barriers to state exploitation of private commercial data. If it succeeds, China will create a consumer market whose customer data is completely interpenetrated with state surveillance mechanisms, and a population whose behaviour can be predicted right down to their choice of underwear.

Paul Mason

What is fiction for?

There is an amusing review of Salman Rushdie’s Golden House, published by New Statesman in September:

“Salman Rushdie’s new novel has been billed as a return to realism, which in relative terms is true enough” … “The Golden House offers the weary, ever-hopeful Rushdie reader a Dexedrine-fuelled hotchpotch of place names, brand names, sort-of-puns […] mothballed observations […] failed phrase-making […] outmoded film theory, WTF quotations […] offhand highbrowism […] plugs for micro-memes and quasi-crazes […] cameos for Werner Herzog […] bewildering suppressions of the words “Spike Lee” […] cogitations on phenomena including satirists and sitarists, shoehorned references to King’s College, Cambridge, and, to facilitate most of the above, the rhetorical device known as amplification.” … “Aversion to choice is the governing principle. Adjectives come in twos – in the novel’s first page and a half, we read, among many other pairings, “thick and strong”, “large, dangerous”, “huge, clumsy”, “sociable and neighbourly”. And the tendency towards excess is replicated on a larger scale; for example, when the spry reference to Nero Golden’s “way of walking toward closed doors without slowing down” is spoiled by the explanatory “knowing they would open for him”.” … “As a rule, Rushdie deploys language without concision or precision. One chapter opening takes a swift dive from mock-epigram into polysyllabic sludge” … “Things that aren’t amusing on their own are rendered nonsensical into the bargain.” … “holding forth is deemed the best way of transmitting narrative information.” … “the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.” … “here we have Salman Rushdie – who, as the author of Midnight’s Children as much as The Satanic Verses, embodies the novel’s powers of resistance – offering a book that seems little more than an exercise in googling, an attempt to sell the listicle as literature.”

As the reviewer points out, Salman Rushdie published works of fiction that affected the real world, but can fiction ever really be ‘important’?

I keep coming back to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote: “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

As I have said already, watching TV is not, and never will be, activism; and if I am entirely honest, I doubt reading or watching The Handmaid’s Tale has, regarding women’s bodily autonomy, changed the mind of a single adult.

And as shown by this year’s emmys, giving Sean Spicer the chance to poke fun at himself and hang out with the stars, the TV industry isn’t actually interested in challenging the status quo.

If fiction can’t change the world, what can it do? Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; – poetry = the best words in the best order.” Which is fair enough. I guess Sturgeon’s Law, “ninety percent of everything is crap”, applies across the board. If A Little Life is genuinely ‘award worthy literature’, then literature is a joke.

We use fiction to manipulate ourselves, to layer on technicolour ersatz emotions so that we know that we are really feeling something. Fiction is, at best, a lie that helps us understand the truth, it can help us articulate an idea or an emotional state we have difficulty accessing/expressing otherwise (real emotions have to be pried out of the side of a mountain with a pick-axe); fiction is putting a fake horn on a real unicorn so that we can see it. The rest of the time it is mere escapism, or voyeuristic gawping.

Human beings will always tell each other stories, it seems to be a fundamental part of our nature to do so, the thing that allowed us to make sense of the world before modern science, a way of passing on ideas and cultural norms.

Despite my cynicism, there are always glimmers of hope. Philip Pullman’s new book came out recently, teaching children to challenge blind obedience and totalitarian thinking.

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.)