They’re Not The Messiahs – They’re Very Naughty Boys

Please watch Holy Flying Circus.

Describing it is something altogether more difficult.  Essentially this is a BBC comedy-drama that charts the events of 1979 when the Pythons, fresh from making the Life of Brian are trying to get it out on general release. They face opposition from a well-meaning group of Christians with speech impediments (curiously like the group from Citizen Smith), local councils (off-screen pandering to the English chattering class) and it all culminates in the famous debate between Palin, Cleese and some of their detractors on a chat show.

It also features some of the best swashbuckling puppets I’ve yet seen.

Yes you did read that right.  It’s hard telling where the fantasy stops and the realism begins.  Real events are woven in between fantastical flights that name checks Pythonesque while still feeling fresh and it’s very funny.  There’s lots of  littles details that add to the story – Palin’s wife is portrayed as Terry Jones female persona and John Cleese has his very own “On behalf of…” to make it clear that this is a fictional rendition and he’s not actually Basil Fawlty (hilarious).  While I mention these two characters I also need to mention that the casting is sublime.  Not only do the Pythons look like their real-life counterparts but they sound and act just like we imagine them: Palin is the nicest man on the planet, Cleese is difficult, Terry Jones obsessed with cinema, Graham Chapman is gay and smokes a pipe while Terry Gilliam is the maverick always trying to animate the hell out of every idea – oh, and he’s the token American.  It’s amazing watching it all come together.

This film needs to be seen.  It needs to be discussed.  If you’ve any doubts about the BBC this is the sort of drama that makes having it worthwhile.

Margaret Atwood: Science Fiction and the Ustopia

This past Friday (14th of October) Margaret Atwood wrote in The Guardian.  This seems to be a preamble for her book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

She states, quite strenuously, that she doesn’t write Science Fiction.  She writes stories that could have/would have/should have/have happened.  Her stories come from some innate truth of the world and Science Fiction, in her words:

… is those books that descend from HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descend from Jules Verne‘s books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.

Which is a very strange choice of definition because it narrows things to a question of strange semantics.  Jules Verne and Wells wrote Scientific Romance but in Wells case  The Martians are a symbol of man’s arrogance.  Their actions are a metaphor for the atrocities he saw Us committing against The Other.   By the same token does Atwood think that the Lunar project envisaged by Verne in The Voyage to the Moon is somehow more plausible than Martians flinging themselves through interstellar space from Mars?  She’s lost me a little.

It seems that Wells lost her at the pesky canisters whereas Verne, talking about crazy Victorian tech’, came across plausibly – which is all a matter of taste.  Still seems odd to me that she is so insistent that she writes Speculative Fiction.

Atwood writes how, as a child, she read and wrote outside of the norm:

I wasn’t much interested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish.

She comes from that generation that had to deal with the pulps and the Golden Age.  Frequently these were little more than idea stories where the cool thing trumped everything else.  But Science Fiction has grown up.  It’s written as much for the grown-ups as the little boys (and girls) and she even helped it along [in her own way].  I recently wrote that I was unhappy with the idea that fantasy was now Fantasy and that many Fantasy readers appeared to have become myopic.  Atwood reveals I am not the first (and I know I will not be the last) to have similar concerns:

… author Bruce Sterling deplored the then-current state of science fiction and ticked off its writers and publishers for having turned it into a mere “category” – a “self-perpetuating commercial power-structure, which happens to be in possession of a traditional national territory: a portion of bookstore rack space”A “category”

Is this perhaps the root of the problem that Atwood has?  She’s desperate to avoid THAT ghetto…

No matter.  She has written an essay that I think is well worth checking out.  It’s informative in what it tells us about her as a writer, her approach to her craft and a little of her concerns of the modern world.  To her we are either in Ustopia or already along the path.  Society has changed [a lot] and the emphasis on Us and The Other is stronger than I can recall in my own lifetime. Whether she wants to be accepted amongst by Science Fiction fraternity or not is irrelevant, her books are part of the debate, and so Science Fiction readers need to ensure they keep their horizons broad.  We need to do what we do best, keep an eye out for books amongst and about The Other.

The Ustopia

Atwood coined this word to describe:

… the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.

Thus we have Freedom Fighters and Terrorists; Capitalist Democracy and Everything Else.  There seems to be a consistent human obsession to characterise between Us and The Other.   If you think of humans as gregarious social animals this seems obvious.  I can imagine Ugh sitting at the campfire telling his clanmates about the evil in the next cave , where sits Grunt and his band telling stories about the strange people next door…  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout my life it’s that people are just people.  Everything Else is just ideology.  But did we really need to coin another word?

Stephen Hawking and the Brave New World

There’s a new show in town and it invokes the departed spirit of Tomorrow’s world, on Channel 4 Stephen Hawking presents the Brave New World. The irony is not lost on me.

This a science sketch show where a host of celebrity scientists talk about the new discoveries they find exciting.    It’s very utopian.  There’s not much discussion of the implications.  Technology is only presented in a benign light and, such as in the case of exoskeletons, where there are obvious military uses these are glossed over.  That’s both refreshing and slightly irritating.  All of the scientists appear to talk about these emerging tech’s with that gosh-wow world view that I’ve only ever seen in some of the early 20s science fiction that I’ve read.  But it is a worthy successor to Tomorrow’s World -t at least tries to show you the potential of some of the R&D that’s going on out there.   It doesn’t patronise as much as Bang Goes The Theory or have the pure entertainment feel of Brainiac Science Abuse.  It’s worth checking out and then remembering that even the much-missed Tomorrow’s world covered the development of the Cruise Missile* as a worthy technological pursuit.

Watch the show anyway.  It’s certainly a great place to mine ideas from.

* It’s doubtful that those 80s presenters imagined seeing them fired at civilians 20+ years later.

From the Guardian Archive..

Mr Wells himselfMr Wells at 70.

The article is written by some nobody called John Maynard Keynes.

Some other nobodies called JB Priestly and “Mr Shaw” were apparently in attendance.

When I am unhappily 70 I hope my birthday dinner also has a few casual guests.

50 years of climbing mount ignorance!

Well done Juster and Feiffer.  Still entertaining kids after all those years. Here’s to many more!

Still Rocking the Tollbooth After Half a Century!

Since when did fantasy mean… well, Fantasy?

If can't tand my pretentiousness... click this picture!  Recently I found myself doing some research and ended up reading The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges  which is a series of [very] short fantasy stories.  I was particularly interested in The House of Asterion which invokes a particular Greek Myth.  As I read I was struck by how narrow the modern interpretation of “fantasy” has become.  Ask a person on the street what, in literary terms, the word means and they will likely define it in terms of swords and sorcery, magic, elves and dwarfs or perhaps modern supernatural stories (invariably featuring a moody person staring out of the book cover).  They also mean doorstop books that have very specific story types and you buy them in sets – or the hopes that the overall arc will someday be finished.

I’m pretty sure Tolkien would wonder what he started.

In The Aleph Borges tells a number of tales.  He even goes out of his way in his afterwords to say that the stories should be considered fantasy and he covers everything:  Magic, Myth, The Other, Timelessness and he does it all in very short stories that make you stop and think.   I don’t claim to have discovered Borges after all I he’s pretty famous in certain circles but I only decided to read him from a happy accident.

The problem is genre.

Now I don’t mean genre as story type.  I don’t mean genre as popular writing.  I  certainly don’t mean it as poor writing.

What I mean by genre is that concept of bookshelf.  Perhaps even genre as shopping experience.

Let me tell you a story…

On a grey day, when rain pounds the pavement, a man walks into a bookshop.  He goes up to the pretty sales assistant and, after flashing his no.1 smile asks, “Where can I buy more of this?”  He flourishes a largish book.  The cover clearly indicates a hooded man and his beardy sidekick slaying the dinosaur analogue.

She gives him a look and points to the shelves where there are an array of hooded men vs the dinosaur analogues (some of them are even the good guys).

The man thanks her and wanders off for a browse under the convenient sign.

Genre is a marketing term.  It’s a happy pigeonhole.

Notice that the man doesn’t go and look in the “fiction” section and he certainly doesn’t go to “dark fantasy”.  He goes to the shelf that says this genre and that.

It’s not surprising.  We like our generic handles.  We like being able to buy easily.  That man has also been me.

It strikes me that there are a lot of books out there that we genre fans (and writers) might like but we don’t get to easily read them.  We don’t see them – they’re hiding away somewhere else. There’s a distinct partition “This is our territory and they are over there“.  I also understand why the big publishing companies like that shelf.  It makes it easier to produce books that people are looking for.  And it sells.

But I worry.  That’s a big shelf.  And there’s a lot of hooded men and beardy sidekicks but there’s not a lot of variation.  I worry that there’s a very narrow horizon on display.  It’s hard to find the gems in there (and there are a few great books squirreled away in amongst the rest).  I remember reading horror as a lad, I still like the occasional horror tale now but can you find any decent new stuff?  No, not really.  Horror collapsed at the end of the 20th century as copycat novels and over exposure caused an entire (ancient) story type to disappear.  You still find horror but more often in the generic fiction section or as an extra veneer on other stories.  I am told that there’s a healthy underground but I’ve never managed to find it.

In an ideal world my story would be different…

On a grey day, when rain pounds the pavement, a man walks into a bookshop.  He goes up to the pretty sales assistant and, after flashing his no.1 smile asks, “Where can I buy more of this?”  He flourishes a largish book.  The cover clearly indicates a hooded man and his beardy sidekick slaying the dinosaur analogue.

She gives him a look and says “That’s great.  You can buy some of that over there but we also recommend this stuff.”  They have a chat.  She points out a few different options and the man realises there’s more out there than his habitual spot.

In this story the man widens his horizons and goes off to find gems.  Maybe I’m atypical in my reading habits.  Maybe I’m more arrogant than I like to admit.  But I do like being surprised.  I do like being told stories that surprise and entertain.  I like stories that fill me up and I like stories that show me that there’s no horizons.  I like to read everything – I even like reading about beards and pointy hats but sometimes, just sometimes, I like to worry about what’s round the corner on the other bookshelves.

In short.  Read The Aleph by Borges it’s great.

And recommend me some gems so I am proved wrong.