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Warning: This article will deal with the issue of domestic violence and thus has a trigger warning. It will also have some mild spoilers for the TV show Jessica Jones.
Angry, hard-drinking, gets into fights, has dysfunctional relationships, lives in a seedy apartment – these are the characteristics of the archetypical PI. You can usually add male to the list as well, which is one reason why the Netflix/Marvel show Jessica Jones is such a breath of fresh air. Here we have a familiar take on the New-York-based private eye, but this time the PI is a woman – and has super strength. However, what makes Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritter) enduring as a character is her personality: she is a savour, living in a dangerous and uncertain world, but she never gives up. Also, she had a habit of breaking doors.
Jessica Jones is part of the wider Marvel shared universe, but one of the strengths of the show is that you do not need to have seen any of the other films or TV shows to follow the plot. The story is entirely stand alone, and it also has a different visual style and narrative to the Marvel cinematic properties. Jessica Jones is a gritty, intimate, ground level view of life as a jobbing person-with-abnormal-abilities. It is nothing like the spectacle rich, epic action-scene-based films of Iron Man or Captain America. Jessica Jones digs deeper into its characters than the films, which is one advantage a thirteen-part TV show has over a two-hour film.
The conflict of the show hinges around Jessica's personal relationships and not big action set pieces. We sees Jessica arguing with her boss, who is going through a messy divorce (ably played by Carrie-Anne Moss). We find out about her childhood and her lifelong best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), and their friendship is dramatised with all the complexities of relationships we are familiar with from our own lives. Jessica and Trish have a deep bond of friendship, but Jessica's volatile personality leads to frequent falling outs. The show also develops in detail Jessica's relationship with the antagonist, Kilgrave - played by David Tennant on very good and very creepy form.
Kilgrave is another person-with-abnormal-abilities (we need better terminology for these people, anything better than hero or enhanced), although Kilgrave's power is that anyone has to do whatever he tells them. Free will does not exist around Kilgrave. If he wants you to stab your best friend, there is nothing you can do about it. Kilgrave uses this ability to manipulate others and enrich himself. He especially likes to use it make beautiful young women his play thing. One of these women was Jessica and at the start of the show she is still recovering psychologically from the experience of being under Kilgrave's control.
The show uses a sci-fi concept, Kilgrave's mind control, to explore an important issue in our world, the power dynamics of abusive and controlling relationships. Kilgrave's abilities are clearly a metaphor for the power abusers’ hold over their victims/loved ones and for how hard it is to break free from the control of someone who is abusive. Approaching this subject through the prism of science fiction allows the show to explore the dynamics of an abusive relationship with a degree of fantasy that makes the narrative less emotionally traumatic and easier to engage with than a more straightforward approach to the subject.
There are lots of films and TV shows that deal with domestic abuse in a sensitive and nuanced way, and stories based in our world that take a frank look at the nature of abusive relationships. Unfortunately, these films and TV shows do not find a huge audience, because of the depressing nature of their content. Tyrannosaur, directed by Paddy Considine, is one such example. Tyrannosaur is a brilliant film but sadly was not seen by many people because most audiences are not interested in social realist dramas set on a Glasgow council estate. The perception of science fiction as more light-hearted and entertaining allows these difficult to digest insights to slip under the radar and into the minds of the viewer.
Jessica Jones is a very good example of serious issues being smuggled into an accessible show with mass audience appeal. Jessica Jones explores the psychological toll that domestic violence has on its victims. Kilgrave appears as a shadow stalking Jessica, disturbing her sleep, distressing her, and appearing to physically assault her despite not being present. At first, the viewer is uncertain if this is a manifestation of Kilgrave’s powers, but later we find that it is psychological damage left by his hold over Jessica.
I like science fiction which tackles serious issues as much as I like escapist sci-fi, which distracts us from this world and appeals to our imagination. The Marvel shared universe has both, in Jessica Jones and Guardians of the Galaxy. Jessica Jones uses the concepts of the sci-fi genre to reflect our own world back at us in a way that we can easily comprehend. This makes it easier to understand how painful it is when an abuser holds power over their victim, and it also shows how difficult it is to escape from an abusive relationship. The use of a sci-fi concept as a key component of this relationship does not cheapen or belittle the psychological suffering of the victims, it merely makes it easier to understand how Kilgrave controls his victims.
David Tennant plays the role of Kilgrave very well. His usual, charming, likeable persona works well when playing a serial abuser. Often people who abuse others are outwardly charming and likeable. They hide the pain they inflict and force their victims to hide it as well. The character of Kilgrave was also abused himself during his childhood, by his parents’ researching his mind control abilities. This does not excuse his actions, but it does highlight an issue that abusers are often previous victims of abuse. Their own history of abuse colours their relationships with others. Pain and love are intertwined in Kilgrave's mind.
Kilgrave also does not see what is wrong about what he does. He sees himself as the real victim, and believes that Jessica genuinely loves him despite the way he has treated her. He blames his victims for his own actions, believes he acts in their best interest and tries to give up violence but always relapses. Kilgrave is entitled and believes he deserves the love and affection of Jessica, despite causing her so much pain. These are among the characteristics of abusive partners and the show explores how these traits appear in abusers who do not have a supernatural control over their victims. Jessica's best friend Trish has been abused by her mother, who believes she acted in her daughter's best interest, has a strong sense of entitlement and appears outwardly charming. Through the science fiction drama of the struggle to free New York City from the terror which Kilgrave inflicts, the show explores the nuances of abusive relationships.
Personally, I find this variety of science fiction more interesting than the escapist kind, although both suit different movies. It is also possible for science fiction to be escapist and to tackle serious issues, such as Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. Jessica Jones is an example of a complex issue in our world explored through the prism of sci-fi concepts. I hope that the show is doing some good, that it illuminated some people to the nature of abuse or made[*therefore also present tense: makes] them questions their own assumptions. This is the power of science fiction to be a social good and shows that Marvel can come up with interesting new takes on their well-established characters.
2015 has been a great year for books. Below are five of my favourites that were released this year:
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
I have no idea how Ann Leckie will follow up her Imperial Radch trilogy; the first volume won almost every prize in sci-fi and become an instant classic. This year she released the third volume and it was a powerful ending to the trilogy.
The Radchaai Empire has been engulfed in civil war as its multi-body leader Anaander Mianaai has broken apart and is fighting herself. Loyalties are divided between the different factions and series protagonist Fleet Captain Breq is trying to prevent the conflict from spreading to the Athoek system. She also has to deal with ethnic tensions within the Athoek system, a hostile presence from outside the system and a visit from a Presger translator - an emissary from a violent and powerful alien race.
The story of the Imperial Radch trilogy is enormous in scale and it would be impossible for one volume to satisfactorily resolve all of the conflict in this universe. Fortunately, Ancillary Mercy does not attempt this and just resolves the story of Breq and the Athoek system. This is handled well, and all of the main characters are given a conclusion that does not leave the reader feeling cheated.
Ancillary Mercy is well-paced and the tension is high throughout. The second volume in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword, was not as well-paced and suffered from having to set up a lot for the third volume. Ann Leckie ably delivers on the promise of the previous novels. There was a lot riding on this final volume of the Imperial Radch trilogy maintaining the quality of the pervious books – and it did. This secures the position of the Imperial Radch trilogy as one of the great series of science fiction novels.
The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig
Books with a message that deliver it subtly usually strike a cord with me. The Fire Sermon is a delicate and thoughtful exploration of otherness and how discrimination is built into our society.
After "the Blast" the few surviving humans can only give birth to twins. They are always a pair of opposite sexes, one strong and health Alpha and one sickly and weak Omega. The novel follows Cass, an Omega, who must learn how to negotiate the difficult post-Blast world, where Alphas rule and Omegas are persecuted.
The Fire Sermon has one simple message, that the oppressed classes in society did not choose their lot, so why should they suffer? A dominant class who are in a position of power through luck alone causes their suffering. The world of Alphas and Omegas is the perfect metaphor for this.
Author Francesca Haig’s background as an academic studying holocaust poetry means that she handles the difficult subject matter and complex emotions with sensitivity. This is a novel with a gripping story of survival, lovingly-crafted characters and an important social message at its core. I am looking forward to more stories in this world.
Poseidon's Wake by Alastair Reynolds
It is great when a trilogy ends on a high, but sometimes you are not so lucky. I was very excited to read the final part of Alastair Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children series, which follows a family of space pioneers across six generations. The protagonists of Poseidon's Wake are the great-grandchildren of the first book's main characters and the great-great-great-grandchildren of Eunice Akinya, the matriarch of this family of space pioneers.
In this third volume, a signal is received from deep space requesting that Ndege Akinya - Eunice’s great-great-granddaughter and a key character in the second volume in the trilogy - be sent to an unexplored system. She is too old to make the trip, but her daughter, Goma, travels in her place. Here she encounters the mysterious Watchkeepers - giant sentient machines introduced in the second novel - and artefacts left behind by the ancient and power M-builders civilisation.
Part three of a trilogy seems to have been something of theme for this year and this book, like Ancillary Mercy, neatly rounds off the story. The narrative of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy covers most of a millennium and is epic in scale. As a result, this third book rambles quite a bit and lacks focus. I have included it on this list because of the strength of the first two books - Blue Remembered Earth and On Steel Breeze – which are very good and I was pleased to see Reynolds draw the series to a satisfying conclusion.
Rush Jobs by Nick Bryan
Last year saw the publication of the first Hobson and Choi book, successfully moving a popular web series into book form. This year saw the publication of two new Hobson and Choi volumes, the first of which was Rush Jobs.
Rush Jobs picks up almost exactly where book one – The Girl Who Tweeted Wolf - left off. Teenager Angelina Choi is starting her second week of work experience at John Hobson's detective agency. Straight away she is plunged into a kidnapping, supermarket slavery and drug trafficking case. At the same time, she must decide if she wants to stay on with Hobson after her work experience is over.
Rush Jobs walks the fine dark comedy/drama line of being both humorous but without the humour detracting from the gravity of the situation that the protagonists find themselves in. There are many potential pitfalls when writing a comedy that also has kidnapping and forced drug smuggling in it, and author Nick Bryan avoids all of these. The end result is both funny and dark, and a great mix of the everyday and the extremes of the criminal underworld.
Also, the bonus story at the end of the novel is brilliant and should be read by everyone.
Trapped in the Bargain Basement by Nick Bryan
The theme of part threes continues with the third Hobson and Choi novel – Trapped In The Bargain Basement - published in October this year. This time the duo of gritty hard-boiled detective John Hobson and his teenaged social-media-conscious work experience assistant Angelina Choi investigate a shopping centre exploiting homeless people by forcing them to commit crime.
This third book benefits from being one complete story, rather than several interconnected stories as the previous volume was. This means there is more time to build up tension and develop the characters. Choi is still on work experience and deciding whether she will continue working with Hobson, which leads to some interesting interpersonal conflict.
The third book manages to be both funny and a gritty crime story without having the one detract from the other. This is mainly because of author Nick Bryan’s ability to turn everyday institutions into hot beds of the criminal underworld. In the second book there was an evil supermarket, and this time the target is an evil shopping centre. The surrealism of a gritty crime story set in a feature of everyday middle class life allows the humour and the darkness of the narrative to sit side by side.
The characters are well developed and are genuinely engaging, as well as being funny. Three books in, Bryan has built up a whole parallel world, with the criminal underworld behind a whole series of staples of middle class London life. I hope that 2016 brings about more adventures from Hobson and Choi.
These are my favourite books published this year. What are yours? Also what are you looking forward to in 2016? Let me know below.
Here you will find a list of every book I read in 2016 for the gender equality reading challenge. The aim is to read 50/50 men and women writers. You can keep track of how I do below:
|The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge||Espedair Street by Iain Banks|
|Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny||23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang|
|The Manhatten Projects volume 1 by Jonathan Hickman|
|Startide Rising by David Brin|
|The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin|
|1984 by George Orwell|
Warning: this review contains quite a lot of major spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Make sure you have seen it before reading this as it’s dead good.
Surely it is not news to anyone that there is a new Star Wars film out. There must be bacteria on Saturn that are aware of this. For the second time in my lifetime, a new Star Wars trilogy has exploded into the cinema with more hype than I thought was possible.
Clearly as a culture, we love Star Wars. Or at least the middle class geeky, mainly male, cultural group I move in loves Star Wars. Not even Harry Potter can so completely unite my Twitter and Facebook timelines in squeals of fannish delight. This new Star Wars film has reached near omnipresent status. It is everywhere and everyone is talking about it.
Star Wars has captured the cultural zeitgeist for a number of reasons, but mainly because this time the fans dared to hope that it would be good. Three sub-par, at best, prequels from George Lucas could not dampen our enthusiasm for more Star Wars. Fans are practically salivating with anticipation for another trip to a galaxy far, far away.
The fans have every reason to be excited; J.J. Abrams is a good director and has made two very entertaining Star Trek movies. His rambunctious take on Star Trek strikes me as an expensive means of auditioning to helm the new Star Wars trilogy. I cannot think of a director who would be better for the role. The trailers showed a lot of promise; the force is strong with this one.
There is one very difficult line Abrams had to walk, one that could make or break his take on Star Wars: how much do you rely on the recognisable characters and motifs from the original Star Wars and how much do you make this a film in its own right? Nostalgia verses originality. Clearly the film needs some of both, but getting the right balance is not easy.
Watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I must admit that it was great to have the classic Star Wars iconography back, something that had been missing from the prequel trilogy. It was wonderful to see a film with tie fighters, stormtroopers, star destroyers, X-wings and the Millennium Falcon. However, The Force Awakens did not rely too heavily on classic Star Wars characters. I appreciated seeing Lela, C-3PO and R2-D2 again but I am glad their appearances were brief to allow new characters to assert themselves.
Said new characters were excellent. We had BB-8, the cute new robot rolling around, which looked convincing because it was a physical character that did not rely on computer effects. The new protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is engaging and sympathetic, from the beginning we are rooting for her to succeed. There is also Finn, a stormtrooper who does not want to be a stormtrooper anymore, played by John Boyega, who delivers the performance of the film, bringing energy and humour to the part. There is also Adam Driver playing new visor-wearing villain Kylo Ren, who is everything a blockbuster antagonist should be, creepy, evil, charismatic and a little bit frightening.
Despite having a mainly fresh cast, The Force Awakens is filled with nods to Lucas’ original trilogy. From when Finn accidently activates the holo-chess set onboard the Millennium Falcon, to Rey living inside a wrecked AT-AT. There are a lot of these cameos of familiar motifs in the film, and it sometimes feels like a roll call of scenes we knew and loved from episodes IV–VI, but it satisfies the audience’s thrust for nostalgia.
There were a lot of nods to past films, but The Force Awakens is a story in its own right. The new characters have lives and adventures of their own and are not crowded out by classic Star Wars characters. Han Solo is the only returning character to play a major role and Harrison Ford does so with the grace and dignity of an elder statesman. This is in contrast to Lucas’ prequel trilogy, which relied too much on classic Star Wars characters - Obi-Wan, R2-D2, Yoda - and did not develop its own characters enough.
The other major flaw of the prequel trilogy was that it focused too much on the internal politics of the Jedi. The Old Republic’s priesthood/Gestapo were not as interesting as Lucas seemed to think they were and each prequel episode always came down to a lightsaber fight in the end. There was an absence of epic space battles or feats of dangerous piloting, which should be the meat and potatoes of any Star Wars films. The prequel trilogy lacked anything as exciting as the battle of Yavin at the end of episode IV.
This issue was addressed in The Force Awakens as Abrams brought the epic. There were huge battles aplenty. The escape from Jakku was a breathtaking scene, with the Millennium Falcon flying loop-the-loops and then racing through the husk of a crashed star destroyer, chased by tie fighters. My heart was in my throat the whole time. As it was during the attack on Takodana when rebel X-wings fly to rescue the heroes and Finn tries to use a lightsaber for the first time. The greatest achievement of the film is its climax, when the rebels attack the new uber-Death Star. It combines daring feats of flying, an intense ground assault and a good versus evil lightsaber showdown. In a phrase: perfect Star Wars.
This amazing sequence was ends with the tragic death of Han at the hands of his own son, Kylo Ren. It was a scene of genuine emotion. So many Star Wars deaths seem hollow, when the audiences does not care about the character, but Han has a special place in any fan’s heart and it was gutwrenching to see him go. Both Harrison Ford and Adam Driver played this scene superbly; it is the jewel in the crown of this film.
The Force Awakens ends with a setup for the next film and a lot of the questions this film raises are left unanswered. I am very excited for episode VIII in March 2017 and I hope it delivers on the promise of this one. J.J. Abrams did an excellent job, taking on one of the toughest directing gigs in Hollywood. He managed to walk the line between the originality this film needed to be a story in its own right and the nostalgia it needed to keep the fans happy. The weight of expectation was enormous and Abrams rose to the challenge ably.
Episode VII has lots of adventure, visual spectacle and epic space battles. This is what Star Wars is all about. This film has the energy and enthusiasm for the classic trilogy that the prequel trilogy was missing. I left The Force Awakens about as excited about Star Wars as I was when I was ten years old. I am now itching with anticipation for more Star Wars films in the future. My faith in the franchise has been restored.
Orange is the New Black, Master of None and Jessica Jones: all of this year's must-watch TV has been on Netflix. The only TV shows that I followed on broadcast TV this year were Dr Who and Peep Show, i.e. established shows that built a fan base in the days before streaming TV services. Even these two, I watched on BBC iPlayer and All 4.
Amazon are keen for a slice of this rapidly-growing pie and have several high-profile original shows to compete with Netflix. Recently, they released the first of these shows that I was inclined to watch, a high-budget adaption of Philip K. Dick's novel, The Man In The High Castle. This book was a seminal part of my education in science fiction literature when I was teenager and has been close to me since. It is an interesting project for Amazon to put so much money behind, as Dick is not the most accessible of writers and this is not the most accessible of his books.
On paper, the pitch for this TV series is solid gold. A string of popular movies began life as Dick novels, including Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. The premise of this novel is compelling: what would early 1960s America be like if Japan and Germany had won World War 2? However, Dick's writing is esoteric, and is more focused on the characters’ internal conflicts than on the wider drama of life in a totalitarian society.
This Amazon adaptation has preserved many of my favourite aspects of the book, especially the focus on how Japanese and American culture interact in the occupied Pacific coast states. The book and TV show explore in fascinating detail how the Japanese see American history and American popular culture. It also explores how the Americans act under occupation: who desires to fight back, who desires to escape, who desires to keep their head down and who becomes enthralled by the culture of the occupiers.
The TV adaptation dropped some of the book’s more ethereal scenes. For example, the reliance of the Japanese Trade Minister, Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), on the guidance of the I Ching is explored in much more detail in the book. Tagomi’s extended thoughts on the wisdom and divine nature of the I Ching are interesting in literature but would be slow paced on television. There is still enough of these details to get an understanding of Tagomi’s character and of the world he inhabits, but a stronger narrative has been built across this world by the TV show’s writers.
One notable addition to the TV show is a great villain in Obergruppenführer John Smith, the head of the SS in the Nazi-controlled Eastern States. Rufus Sewell plays the part of Obergruppenführer Smith with relish, enjoying being a vision of terror but also bringing humanity to the character. The longer format of a ten-part TV show gives the writers a greater opportunity to explore the characters from the book more detail. Luke Kleintank does morally conflicted very well in the role of Joe Blake (Joe Cinnadella in the novel), a Nazi spy who falls in love with Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a new recruit to the resistance movement which he is supposed to be infiltrating. The TV show has a clunky love triangle between Joe, Juliana and her current boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) which adds little to the plot. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is exceptional as trade minister Tagomi, trying to avert the looming conflict between the Japanese and Nazi empires.
The most interesting aspects of the TV show were those that explored how American society could be co-opted by Nazi occupation. It is striking to see American flags and buildings adorned with Swastikas with the same pride as the starts and stripes. This embrace of Nazism by America is best expressed in the character of Obergruppenführer Smith, and the conservative, authoritarian small-town patriarch looks shockingly at home in an SS uniform. It is entirely plausible that apple pie, baseball and bunting could be combined with TV addresses from the Führer on Victory in America Day.
The TV show's vision of a world which combines the culture of the 3rd Reich and 1960s America is convincing, but does not stand up to more detailed scrutiny. Most likely the two would morph into a third, different culture that was not so consciously American. For example jazz music is used effectively in the TV show to evoke the feel of the early 1960s in the mind of the viewer, but no Nazi-based society would have allowed jazz music to become popular. Their music world have been Wagnger or Beethoven, but having the Ring Cycle playing over the start of an episode does not evoke the period that the show is set in. I can understand the show's producers need to take short cuts to establish the period, but it does not lead to a convincing vision of a world where the Axis Powers won the Second World War.
Overall, the Amazon adaptation of The Man In The High Castle was well made and really entertaining. I was hooked from the first episode, sucked into the show’s world and wanting to find out what happened to its characters. This adaptation is sufficiently faithful to the book to keep me satisfied as a fan, and it added enough to make the story work in a different medium. I am glad that Amazon stuck to Dick’s book, with all its inaccessibility, as much as possible instead of taking the basic premise and making a more accessible story.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for series 9 of Dr Who. I want you to read this article, so if you have not seen series 9, watch the show and then come back and read this article.
I find it hard to be objective about Dr Who. My love for the show began in 1993 when the BBC rebroadcasted Planet of the Daleks as part of the 30th anniversary of the show's first broadcast. I was 8 at the time and the show captured my imagination. Through VHS and episodes taped off UK Gold, the adventures of an eccentric man in a time traveling phone box became an integral part of my childhood and the foundation of my love of science fiction.
A lot of criticism has been leveled at the tone of the show, the believability of the stories, the reliance on CGI and head writer Steven Moffat, and I do not want to go into that debate here. Here I want to talk about how entertaining and well-made series 9 of the show, - which finished on Saturday the 5th of December - was.
Overall I thought this series was better than the one before it. I enjoyed a lot of episodes from series 8, especially The Caretaker, but this series had several distinct improvements. Primarily more two part stories, which allowed for meatier and better-developed narratives. Writing Dr Who must be a difficult task, each new episodes requires a whole new sci-fi world to be introduced, along with characters, and a story executed in three-quarters of an hour. It is not a writing job I envy. Due to these constraints, there have been unconvincing, cop-out, endings. Kill the Moon from series 8 is a good example of this. Series 9's longer stories were convincing, at no point did I feel cheated by a writer or that a plot needed more development.
The series opened with an overwritten introduction, typical of Moffat’s style. Moffat clearly has talent as a writer - Blink is near perfection – however, his ability to dwell too much on the infamy of the Doctor while writing confusing non- sequiturs that do not advance the plot is style over substance. It was an interesting motif but added nothing to the story. Moffat shows off too much in his writing. He needs to practice the art of writing stories without flair, which follow a linear progression. Then he can be play at being a sci-fi James Joyce. The opening of series 9 was typical Moffat excess.
After that, the story of The Magician's Apprentice kicked in and I forgot my misgivings. It was great to have Missy back and Michelle Gomez is exceptional in the role, definitely the stand out performance from the series. The Daleks were used effectively and not simply rolled out as a suitable end of series villain to add some dramatic weight the sake of it - I am looking at you, Russell T. Davies. From that point on, the standard of writing was high.
Series 9 boasted a great cast at the top of their form. The writers have caught on to how well Capaldi can act and given him more nuanced scenes and longer speeches where he can really show off how good he is in the role. Capaldi ably rises to these challenges and easily proves that he is the best actor to play the Doctor since the show was brought back in 2005.
Maisie Williams was an excellent addition to the cast and stole the show in four well-written episodes. I certainly hope her character can return at some point, as there is plenty of unexplored potential there. Clara is a good companion, she has a character in her own right, and Jenna Louise Coleman plays her well. Despite being a good character, Clara lacks the magnetism of some of past companions, Amy or Donna for example.
Some stand out episodes from this year were Under the Lake and Before the Flood, which had the creepy build up and satisfactory pay off of a strong horror story. Also The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion showed how sci-fi in general, and Dr Who in particular, can be used effectively to hold up a mirror up to the human condition. Here was a well-developed story, based on moral complexity and relatable characters on both sides of a conflict. When Dr Who makes you doubt whether you are rooting for the human, then it is doing its job properly. Heaven Sent reminded us of the great Moffat of the past, the one who wrote Blink and Silence in the Library, someone who can twist a story round on itself and keep you guessing until the last second.
One criticism of this year was that too many end of episode cliffhangers hinged on suggesting that either the Doctor or Clara were dead. This has been done so many times that it has lost its intrigue. Such is the overuse of this trick that it detracted from Clara’s eventual real death. Aside from the overly bombastic opening to The Magician’s Apprentice, I was also underwhelmed by Mark Gatiss' offering this series. Found footage has been done to death and this brought nothing new to the field - although Sleep No More did have a genuinely disgusting villain.
The ending of the series was solid, it did not loom over the rest of the series like Doomsday did in series 2 and did not feel like a bizarre and unnecessary coda like The Wedding of River Song at the end of series 6. The long anticipated return of the Time Lords was handled well by Moffat and Clara's goodbye was probably the best companion departure yet. It was good to have an emotional ending to her time with the Doctor, without her having to suffer greatly. It also addressed the question of what can give your life meaning after the Doctor has gone from it?
I generally feel positive about this series. Dr Who as a whole is not without its flaws. The momentum that the David Tennant and early Matt Smith series had is gone from the show. This is not necessary anyone's fault, nothing can stay that fresh and zeitgeisty for long. However, my enthusiasm for Dr Who is less than it once was. I have not re-watched a complete series since series 5.
I will always have a soft spot for Dr Who, and it is very pleasing to see Capaldi doing well in the role. The improvements over the last series show that this show can still deliver surprisingly good episodes, the Zygon adventure was a case in point. Capaldi appears to be just hitting his stride, whereas Smith and Tennant were already starting to feel a bit tired two series in. I can only hope that this year's Christmas special and series 10 maintain the quality.
How do you follow up a successful crime novel? With sequels, of course. The crime genre naturally lends itself to a series of novels, as there will always be more crimes to solve. This is especially true of detective novels, where new cases are constantly arising. As a reader it is great to find a detective novel that you like, as further adventures are very likely to come into print.
Last year I read and enjoyed The Girl Who Tweeted Wolf by debut author Nick Bryan, and I was similar entertained by the sequel published earlier this year, Rush Jobs, so I was very pleased to discover that a third volume, Trapped In The Bargain Basement, would be coming out in October.
Like its two predecessor ‘Hobson and Choi’ adventures, Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a gritty detective drama with a dash of Bryan's sarcastic humour on top. Bryan is not afraid of tackling serious issues - the previous Hobson and Choi adventure looked at the effect of gentrification of Peckham – and book tackles the problem of London's homeless.
Rising homelessness is a serious problem in London, and Bryan approaches the issues with intelligence and sensitivity. Trapped In The Bargain Basement acknowledges that homelessness does not just mean street sleepers, and that the term also covers those in temporary or insecure accommodation, something which is frequently overlooked in the homelessness debate. In this novel, Hobson and Choi encounter a group of people squatting in the basement car park of an up-market shopping centre – people without secure homes of their own who live in accommodation not fit for human habitation, which is often the reality of homelessness. These people are frequently the victims of abuse or people who have been evicted from private rented accommodation. With the soaring cost of renting in London, this is becoming a growing problem.
The main homeless character in the book is Camille, a French runaway who is hinted at having a history of abuse from a family member and whose job as a cinema usher will not cover renting in London. This is subtle way to explore the realities of homelessness for many people through the medium of a comedy/crime novel.
People like Camille are the unseen side of homelessness. They are hidden away in temporary accommodation or accommodation unfit for human habitation. These are the people we are oblivious to as we go about our lives, but they are frequently the victims of exploitation and crime, as this book explores.
Camille works in the cinema at the trendy East London shopping centre of the EastVillage, which is run by the exploitive manager Allan Ballart. Seasoned detective John Hobson and his teenage work-experience placement Angelina Choi are brought in to investigate a series of muggings that have taken place in the EastVillage. They quickly discover Camille and the community of homeless people living beneath the shopping centre, but when Hobson and Choi start asking too many questions about who really benefits from the crimes taking place, Camille is framed for murder and Hobson and Choi need to discover the real culprit.
The plot of Hobson and Choi's investigation takes twists and turns which keep the novel interesting, and the characters are written in a humorous and compelling way. The reader gets a sense of their lives outside the case which are developed enough to seem realistic. Hobson is having an awkward affair with the receptionist of his building and has newly acquired a dog that he is uncertain how to look after. Choi is taking her first steps in dating, as well as wondering whether she wants to continue with Hobson after her work experience ends. However, as interesting as the plot is, it does lack tension. There is not a great sense of peril for the main characters. The reader grows attached to Camille and we do not want to see her go to prison, but our main focus is on the detectives, who are not in a great deal of danger.
Bryan uses comedy to relieve what could be a very depressing story, whilst the darkly sarcastic nature of Bryan's humour matches the tone of the plot. The frequency of the jokes means that this is a story which does not take itself too seriously, and this makes it easier for the reader to digest the serious points made about homelessness, abuse, exploitation and murder. Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a dark story, but the sarcastic humour keeps it from being unbearably bleak.
The Hobson and Choi books are grounded in the realities of life for most Londoners. As well as the story of the case we get a lot of insights into Hobson’s and Choi's lives outside work. Choi lives on social media, Hobson is suspicious of it. Hobson eats at Subway, whereas Choi prefers a trendy pop-up pizza place in Brixton. The scenes from outside work for both characters are realistic and familiar to reader from our own lives, which is what brings the characters to life. One of the best scenes in the novel is Choi's date with returning Hobson and Choi character Will. Bryan portrays the early stages of a teenage romance without sensation and with his trademark witty sense of humour. We all remember what those early awkward dates were like and recreating these sensations with these characters gives them a life beyond that of the iconic roles of detective and assistant.
Trapped In The Bargain Basement is a very entertaining read and it lives up to the promise of the previous Hobson and Choi adventures. This is my favourite outing for the comedically mismatched pair of detectives, because it has a compelling story, tackles important issues in an intelligent way and has a sense of humour based on everyday life that brings the characters to life. I am glad that the Hobson and Choi series, which started so well, continues to produce great books. I am looking forward to their fourth adventure, Blood Will Stream, next year.
When Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon in 1969, it was broadcast around the world. For someone of my generation, it is hard to imagine a time when space breakthroughs were on the front cover of newspapers. Today, space exploration is confined to the science section of most news websites. Is that because we are not pushing back boundaries in the same way that we were in the 60s, or are people less interested in the exploits of private space companies when the benefits of their breakthroughs will not help all of humanity? Maybe we have all become cynical about space exploration because dreams of living on the moon by the end of the last century did not come true, or maybe we have simply stopped believing that the future can be different from today.
Despite America being the first to land a human on the moon, the 1950s and 1960s were dominated by Russian space breakthroughs. The first satellite in space, first animal in space, first man in space, first woman in space and first group in space were all Russian. Now a new exhibition at the London Science Museum called ‘Cosmonauts’ looks at the history of the Soviet space program and its accomplishments.
The exhibition tells the detailed story of the Russian exploration of space, through objects from the period, models, videos, photographs, audio and written accounts. The exhibition reveals the background to the Soviet space program that many people will not know in detail. For example, I did not know that Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, worked in a textile-factory before going into space.
The exhibition is arranged roughly chronologically from the early inspiration that Russian science fiction writers had on the space program, through to the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 and then Yuri Gagarin's first trip into space in 1961. The exhibits tell the story in a powerful and emotional way, bringing in the personal stories of the people involved. ‘Cosmonauts’ also shows how the USSR's achievements in space inspired the ordinary Russian people.
As the exhibition develops, we are shown how fiercely Russia competed with America during the Cold War space race. Driven by early successes, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev put pressure on the space program for more and more firsts. The USSR's achievements were supposed to keep them one step ahead of the USA, which they were until NASA landed the first person on the moon.
‘Cosmonauts’ does not shy away from the fact that Cold War hostility drove Russia's expanse into space. The exhibition shows how military technology, mainly rocketry, was adapted for the Soviet space program and how America was alarmed by Russia's progress. Successfully putting satellites into orbit confirmed to the Americans that the Soviets had rockets capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the USA. These advancements in space travel where not "in peace for all mankind", as Armstrong claimed when he stepped down into the moon.
‘Cosmonauts’ also walks the fine line of acknowledging the political repression in the USSR at the time, whilst not being too hostile to the Soviet government. This is primarily an exhibition about scientific and technological accomplishments, and not political history. ‘Cosmonauts’ is not a critique of Communism but a look at the scientific history of the 1950s and 1960s space program.
I am interested in both science and political history, and so I found ‘Cosmonauts’ fascinating. Beyond the history, I found it interesting because of my interest in modernism. Like a lot of the modernist period, the space race was a time when it seemed like the future was happening right now. People were not always optimistic about the future – the chance of the world being annihilated in a nuclear war seemed high – but people knew that the future would be radically different from the present. It is this dream, more than anything else, that we have lost. It is telling that ‘Cosmonauts’ ends at the end of the 1960s, when the modernist age was also ending.
I found that ‘Cosmonauts’ was accessible to people without much technical knowledge of space travel or rocketry. Despite reading The Martian recently, I cannot tell my Apollos from my Soyuzs. The technical information in ‘Cosmonauts’ was pitched at the right level: not too much to be confusing, but detailed enough so that I learned without feeling talked down to.
As a side note, I would certainly recommend picking up the audio guide for this exhibition. Partly because it is narrated by Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, but also because it gives the listener information about the exhibits without the need to crowd around the display signs, which will be busy on a weekend.
I would recommend ‘Cosmonauts’ at the London Science Museum to anyone interested in the early years of space travel. Even if you know nothing about – or are not particularly interested in – Soviet Russia, this is a fascinating exploration of a (mainly) peaceful competition that once captivated the entire world. Hopefully it can inspire us to look upwards once again. The exhibition closes with the words of of Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever".
Andy Weir's novel of one man's struggle to survive on Mars has become a sci-fi sensation. The book was published to little fanfare but has become a viral success, ending up being Goodread's top sci-fi novel of 2014. The book is tense, well-plotted and uses the scientific detail to enhance the story of protagonist Mark Watney's struggle to survive. It has won over sci-fi reader after sci-fi reader, spread through peer-to-peer recommendations, and become a best seller. Inevitably, a big budget Hollywood adaptation has followed; the question is – can it live up to the book's success?
The short answer is that it does. The Martian is a superb film, entertaining from its witty first scene to the more thoughtful final few moments. Although it is two and a half hours in long, the Martian flies by and I was hooked for all of it. Watney's struggle for survival in the barren, airless deserts of Mars is tense and his fellow astronauts’ plan to rescue him is filled with edge-of-the-seat tension.
Ridley Scott is on excellent form behind the camera. His direction keeps the pace up and the film never drags, a real accomplishment for a film that is quite long and has a large cast of characters. Scott also uses special effects well, the action is intimate and focused on the characters. There are several dazzling scenes that doubtless employed an army of CG artists but no scene feels like hollow spectacle. The action drives forwards the plot and keeps the audience focused on Watney's precarious circumstances.
Scott's film is a very faithful adaptation of Andy Weir's novel. Dialogue, and at times whole scenes, are lifted directly from the book. The plot is identical to the novel: astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is the botanist on the third manned mission to Mars. During a freak sandstorm, Watney is lost and his colleagues are forced to abandoned the planet and leave him for dead. When he awakes and realises what has happened, he sets about finding out how he can survive on Mars until the next manned mission arrives in four years’ time. The problem is that he only has one year's worth of food and the airless, waterless surface Mars is a dangerous place to spend any amount of time. Meanwhile, NASA have found out that Watney is still alive and try to rescue him.
The film takes the novel's most tense scenes and expertly transposes them into nail-biting moments of cinema. The scenes when Watney's Martian habitat collapses and when he finally escapes from Mars make for tense and exciting cinema – the latter scene is one of the best I have seen this year.
All of the novel's large cast of characters are faithfully realised on screen in a series of great performances. Matt Damon excels as the ever upbeat Watney, a character he is perfectly cast for. Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Director of Mars Operations, the man in charge of saving Watney. So also Jessica Chastain, who plays Commander Lewis, Mark Watney's tormented superior officer. Other great performances are delivered by a stellar cast including Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig and Kate Mara, but a special mention must go to Benedict Wong who delivers the performance of the film as the hard pressed NASA's Jep Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng. The only actor who disappoints is Sean Bean, whose enthusiastic performance appears to have been edited within an inch of its existence.
Fans of the novel will be glad to hear that the science of how Watney grows enough food to survive on Mars and the technology behind NASA's rescue plans are not diluted for the film. They feature heavily and are ably crafted into the story so that the audience never feels talked down to or confused, whilst the novel's level of detail is preserved. The Martian shows how a hard sci-fi story can be as entertaining as any action blockbuster, when handled by a competent director with a good cast.
My only criticism of The Martian is that it is perhaps too faithful to the book. Bringing a book with so many scenes and characters to the big screen means individual moments or characters rarely get a chance to shine. The film is long and although the tension remains high, some events are rushed through. It was great to see a film that was so faithful to a book that I love, but I would have preferred a greater degree of adapting the story to the medium of cinema.
The isolation and loneliness, which the novel conveys so well, are not developed in the movie. This could have been achieved with a greater focus on Matt Damon and less on the other characters. A movie which followed his video logs would have been less tense, but would have allowed for a greater character study and would have more effectively drawn out the drama of his struggle to survive in a hostile environment. The climax and denouement scenes are substantially different to the book to show what a more Mark-Watney-focused film would have been like. It would have been interesting to see this movie.
The road which the film could have taken does not detract from how entertaining and enjoyable The Martian is. It is an excellent adaptation that translates the strengths of the book to the screen and adds good performances and tense directing. I would certainly recommend seeing it to any fan of the book or of sci-fi cinema.
Readers often think of science fiction and fantasy as two separate but related genres. They both rely on creating unusual worlds and telling stories that explore them. Sci-fi and fantasy overlap - there are common tropes, archetypes, stories, etc - but most readers divide novels into one genre or the other. However the line between sci-fi and fantasy is blurry and there are some stories that cross over from one genre to the other. These are science fiction fantasy books.
China Miéville is an author whose work exists in this blurred territory. He has written urban fantasy novels like King Rat and science fiction like Embassytown, but some of his books, like The Scar, use both sci-fi and fantasy concepts. The Scar has magic (thaumaturgy in this universe) and vampires as characters, but there are also spaceships and aliens in the novel. Miéville’s writing borrows from the iconography of both genres, and he fits into neither.
In order to find out what exists between the two genres, we should look at the difference between them. The commonly accepted distinction is that science fiction should have some scientific explanation for the imaginative concepts that the author has invented for the story. For example, the novel the Andy Weir's novel The Martian is based on what is scientifically possible now and what might be possible in the future, where as there is no scientific explanation of the origin of the Discworld. These stories are easy to classify as one genre or the other.
Dr Who is a good example of a TV show that is both sci-fi and fantasy. Although a lot of Dr Who is based upon what we know about science, there are a lot of Dr Who stories that do not stand up to scientific analysis. Time travel is probably not possible; neither can a child crying on Christmas Day defeat a homicidal snowman. The Daleks and the Cybermen make sense when looked at from a scientific point of view, as they are imagined along the lines of possible developments in cybernetics, but when Amy wishes the Doctor back from the dead it is not scientific and neither are the means by which the Weeping Angels turn to stone when looked at. These devices can be used to tell emotionally engaging stories, but they do not stand up to scientific scrutiny, so Dr Who sits in the space between sci-fi and fantasy as it has elements of both.
A book can be in both genres not just by borrowing from both: a writer can approach non-scientific concepts in scientific way. For example, the time machine, from HG Wells’s novel, is a realistic (as was considered possible at the time) scientific explanation of what the future will be like told through a non-scientific means, i.e. time travel. Wells's vision of the future and the people in it makes sense but the science of the machine does not.
Rather than sitting across both genres, a story can move from one to the other. Anne McCaffrey's ‘Dragon Flight’ novels start off as fantasy but then become science fiction as the technology and science behind the setting is revealed. From the characters’ point of view it makes sense for them to explain their circumstances - mainly the existence of dragons - as magic based upon what they know, but their understanding changes as the story progresses across several novels.
The characters' perception of what is magic and what is science is key to the stories that sit on the blurred line between the sci-fi and fantasy genres. In some stories, the explanation is deliberately vague, which makes it harder to tell whether it is scientific or not because according to Clarke’s third law ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.
In many of the stories the power of technology is shielded in mysticism. In Frank Herbert's novel Dune, the line between science and magic is blurred because of social factors. The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and the Kwisatz Haderach are mystical and they have strange abilities, such as seeing through time and having ancestral memories, all of which is unscientific. The protagonist Paul's experience of the world of Dune is more like that of a fantasy novel (understanding strange things as magic) because that is how he sees the world. Paul does not seek scientific explanations to the strange things that he encounters, as we would, because of the different society he was raised in. The reader cannot judge if these concepts are scientific or magic because there is no reason for the characters to ask this question. The reader has to put this novel on the blurred line between sci-fi and fantasy because of how the characters see their world.
Characters see the world of Dune differently to our world because it is set in the far future and society has changed a lot in the intermediate millennia. Star Wars is another similar example where mysticism shields concepts such as the Force from scientific analysis and the characters do not question this. The technology behind the Death Star is based on projections from our science, but the Jedi and the Force is more difficult to explain. Like Dune, the characters do not question the unexplained nature of the Force, so the viewer can never know for sure. Star Wars is set ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ and Dune is our distant future, so it makes sense that society’s views on what should be questioned and investigated are different.
There is no hard and fast rule about which genre stories fall into and which ones are in between genres. The further the story is removed from our world, the more difficult it is to classify story concepts as magic or science. The Martian is clearly science fiction, but the science behind a lot of the book is not fully explained. There is no scientific explanation as to how they transported something the size of the rovers to Mars so the reader must just accept this for the story to work, much as they must accept magic in a fantasy story. Whilst there is no scientific explanation to the origin of the Discworld, the ways in which magic works in Terry Pratchett’s novels follows set rules like science does and is investigated in a scientific way at Unseen University. Even these books which appear easy to classify as one genre or the other have elements of both.
Across all of literature, the lines between genres are blurring to tell interesting stories, not just sci-fi and fantasy. As the distinction between genres becomes more vague, it will get harder to classify stories into one genre or the other.
The Moon is a powerful symbol in science fiction. It constantly looks down on us, reminding us that the universe is larger than this world. It is the only other body in the solar system that people have visited, and it represents the first step in getting off this world and exploring space. Lots of sci-fi works set in the near future have the moon as the first place colonised by humans, and in many visions of the future the moon is a stopping off point for the rest of the system. Alastair Reynold's Blue Remembered Earth is the most recent example of a book I have read which uses the moon in this way.
There was a time, within living memory, when it looked like our world and science fiction were converging and the limits of human exploration were being pushed back. These were the hay days of the US/USSR space race, which led to the first humans landing on the moon in 1969. This race to the moon has inspired many sci-fi stories set on the moon or around the moon – the Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein or Eon by Greg Bear, for example – but there is one sci-fi story which instantly jumps to my mind when thinking about the moon landing and that is the Tintin adventures Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. Belgian comic writer Herge first published these comics in Tintin Magazine in 1950, 11 years before Kennedy announced that America would go to the moon in 1961 and 19 before the first landing in 1969.
The Tintin stories are rooted in the modernist age and highlight some of the social and technological changes that modernism was exploring. New technological breakthroughs from colour TV to nuclear power are the focus of Tintin stories, and it is Professor Calculus's nuclear powered rocket which takes Tintin and his friends to the moon. The Tintin comics also focus on political changes, such as the Cold War, which shows concern about direction of events in the modern age. The space race was an important part of the modernist age and by looking at the way we viewed the moon, we can tell a lot about that time. This is especially well summed by looking at Tintin.
One feature of modernism was a sense of optimism about the future and a belief that we could build a better world – this was especially present in modernist architecture. For many people, the space race represented this hope for a future where new frontiers would be opened, and we would live in space or on the moon. The moon landing is the most striking image of an expanding future, as it pushed back the boundaries of where humans had been. Many people thought that within a few years from 1969 we would be living on the moon. Today this sense of optimism has faded, and we are frightened by the future. We have also stopped visiting the moon.
This sense of optimism about the future was fueled by a belief that technology would continue to develop at the rapid pace which it had during the 40s, 50s and 60s. In Tintin, this is represented by Calculus’s nuclear rocket, which makes space travel much easier than it was in real life. In Tintin, a single nuclear-powered ship could make the journey to the moon, return to Earth and be reused. If this had been how technology developed, then space travel would be much easier and we would now have colonies in space.
The nuclear rocket in Tintin is as much a science fiction concept as the Enterprise or a Culture GSV. Nuclear power has not become compact enough or efficient enough safely to power a mission to the moon, certainly not with the ease that is shown in Tintin. In reality, to visit the moon we needed several vehicles, connected together, most of which were destroyed in the process of being used. It is nearly 50 years since the moon landing and we still travel to space the same way, i.e. the majority of our crafts are thrown away. This makes space travel very costly and not something that can be undertaken easily.
Technology has advanced since the moon landings (most mobile phones are more powerful than the computers which the moon missions used), but the huge technological advancements of the modernist age – mass manufacturing, electronics, flight, space travel, nuclear power – did not make space travel as easy as it is shown in Tintin. Today there is a feeling amongst many people that we are going backwards and we have lost hope in the future. We got rid of Concorde, we do not go to the moon anymore, and we are worried about the effects of humans on this planet rather than getting off it. The future is a scary place and we do not want to live there. Tintin is modernist as it shows that the future can be a better than the present, in the future we will be able to go to the moon.
The Moon represents some of the goals of modernism because it is about being optimistic about the future and reaching for more than we have now. However, Modernism was also about questioning the narrative of endless progress. The rockets that took us to the moon were not just symbols of hope but also of terror, as they carried the bombs that could destroy the world. New technological breakthroughs during the Second World War made international travel and space travel easier and possible respectively, but it also made devastation on a huge scale possible. During the war, many people had seen the destruction that new technology could create and were frightened that the prospect of a war between the two global superpowers, the USA and the USSR, would be even worse.
The expansion of conflict into new theatres, especially space-based ones, is a key theme of science fiction. In Tintin, the new conflict of the Cold War is represented by the Bordurian attempt to sabotage the rocket and later by Colonel Jorgen, a Bordurian agent, who stows away on the rocket and attempts to maroon Tintin on the moon. Borduria is an Eastern European Communist state that stands in for the entire Eastern block in many Tintin adventures. The conflict with Colonel Jorgen in Explorers on the Moon shows that for Tintin space is as dangerous as much as it is an opportunity. It also shows how the conflicts of the modern world are expanding to new theatres as the boundaries of humanity are pushed back.
The Tintin adventures, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, are a glorious piece of modernist science fiction, filled with optimism and fear about the future. In the world of Tintin, new adventures such as travelling to the moon are possible, but also new conflicts are expanding in dangerous ways. The Moon remains as far away to us as it was in 1950; the brief age of space exploration is over, and for now humanity is very much stuck on Earth. At the same time, we have lost the modernist desire to build a better world. Maybe hope that the future will be better than the present will return some day and humanity will turn its head upwards and be excited once again about walking on the moon.
Today the winners of the 2015 Hugo awards will be announced, and whatever happens, the outcome will be controversial because of the nominations. This year's Hugo award nominations have been dominated by a few writers who received the backing of a Gamer Gate affiliated internet group known as the Sad Puppies. The Puppies believe that sci-fi awards have become dominated by a liberal elite who are more interested in rewarding women and writers of colour than good science fiction. The Puppies slate is filled with politically Conservative authors, such as John C. Wright - I have written about this before.
The Sad Puppies want to go back to a fictional past when science fiction novels were about explosions, goodies and baddies, battles and adventure, and not tackling weighty issues from our world such as gender and inequality. Science fiction has always explored issues from both a liberal and conservative viewpoint. I believe that this exploration of issues is fundamental to writing great science fiction. I want an inclusive sci-fi which comments on our world and uses political and social issues to enhance the stories being told. A regression to "white dudes in space" will damage the quality of the science fiction writing produced in the future.
To support this argument, I will start by going back to the early days of my love of sci-fi novels. The X-Wing novels by Michael A. Stackpole were my gateway to reading sci-fi. I loved the Star Wars movies and toys, and wanted more from that universe. A series of novels about daring X-Wing pilots fighting the remnants of the Empire was the perfect fix for my hungry Star Wars habit. The X-Wing novels are great space adventures, heroic rebels, evil Imperial agents and lots of excitement. I owe my love of reading and writing sci-fi to these novels.
After reading five X-Wing novels, I started reading other works of science fiction. Dune, Foundation and Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep were early favourites. My tastes changed as I went through my teenaged years and discovered other writers. When I went to university, my horizons were broadened and I became more aware of society, politics and history, as well as my own privilege and the importance of diversity. My tastes changed as well to suit this new understanding of the world. When I discovered Iain M. Banks, he quickly became my favourite writer, and this led on to many other social sci-fi novels, such as Ray Bradbury or J.G. Ballard, and eventually to reading Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, the winner of the Hugo award for best novel in 2014.
These books have more nuanced characters, more complex stories and tackle issues from our world. They take the medium of science fiction beyond space adventure to create stories with emotional resonance and insight into the human condition. At the same time as my taste evolved towards more sophisticated novels, I also expanded from only reading novels written by people like me - straight, middle-class, white, western - to reading books by a wider range of authors. I fully admit that I have a long way to go in this regard; I still mainly read books written by white men, but I am making an effort to read sci-fi written by people of different backgrounds whose experience of the world is different to mine.
I feel this is a natural element of becoming an adult, in much the way that my taste in food has developed. When I was young, I only ate bland British food, but now I love Indian, Chinese, Thai and Mexican food. Over time, our tastes and interests become broader and more sophisticated. The Sad Puppies feel that rewarding more sophisticated and diverse writing is just pandering to political correctness and ignoring books that are entertaining in favour of books which tackle issues. However, they only evaluate a book against one criteria, its entertainment factor, rather than looking at a range of reasons why a book might be worth reading.
Why do I consider it natural for our tastes to develop this way? Let's go back to the start to look at this. The X-Wing novels were entertaining to read but the plot mainly revolved around white men having space adventures, like the Star Wars films themselves. We know that real life stories are a lot more complex than this. Any story taken from our own lives has a diverse range of different people in it. We see diversity around us every day - the majority of people I interact with are not straight, white, middle-class, cis-gendered men from the midlands - so when diversity is not represented in the stories we read, they become implausible. Surely the future will be more diverse than the present, and the events of the future are likely to be as complex and nuanced as those of the present.
Take a moment to look at any real life conflict and you will see that there are two sides, two competing arguments - that is unless you approach the world in a very reductive way. The diversity in our world means that real life stories are much more complex than the plot of an X-Wing novel, and the people who populate our world are more nuanced than the characters of the X-Wing novels. The conflict in the X-Wing novels, and Star Wars in general, does not make much sense under scrutiny. One of the reasons why episodes 1-3 are so bad is that they try to explain the politics of the conflict, which is too simple to make sense. Star Wars is a struggle of absolute good against absolute evil, but no real life struggle is that simple.
This is not a criticism of the X-Wing novels being aimed at younger readers. There are plenty of YA novels with a diverse range of nuanced characters and complex conflicts that make sense when examined. The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig is a good example of this, but there are many others. Aiming your novel at a younger audience does not necessarily mean dumbing it down and is not an excuse for having characters and conflicts which do not make sense in a real world context.
The stories that sci-fi writers tells have to be believable and our reference frame for what is believable is our understanding of our world. Science fiction can have imaginative aliens, theoretical technology, bizarre worlds, strange cultures and anything else that a sci-fi writer can imagine but the characters, their relationships and conflicts must make sense to the reader based on their experience of our world. This means being complex and diverse, as our world is.
Conflicts, cultures, societies and relationships will be different in the future from how they are now, but they will evolve out of the present. The conflicts and characters of a sci-fi story should make sense when translated into our world or else they are too simple. For example, Iain M Banks's novel Consider Phlebas is about a struggle for influence and the clash of ideology between two great military powers, very similar to the cold war from our history. Ancillary Justice is about imperialism and would make as much sense in the context of 17th century European expansion. The characters in these stories and their relationships are similar to what the reader is likely to experience from their own lives. Ancillary Justice maybe about the relationship between an AI governing a spaceship and a lieutenant on that ship, but it is a relationship based around love and respect and is nuanced enough to be believable as a relationship. Conflicts and relationships should be informed by our world to make sense to the reader.
A sci-fi writer's work is based on his or her experience of our world and thus the writing is influenced by his or her privileges and the society she lives in. Authors need to be aware of this when crafting their stories. This is especially true when handling issues of diversity. I have said that sci-fi stories do not make sense without diversity, but when writing about diversity the author's privileges need to be taken into account. This is why I like sci-fi that explores issues, conflicts and relationships in our world through a sci-fi prism because they are informed by our world and thus their fictional world is believable. I also like sci-fi stories when the authors are aware of their own privileges and try to comment on them, or least prevent them from clouding the story.
Doing all this requires a certain amount of complex narrative, nuanced characterisation, detailed world building and issue exploration which you do not get in the white dudes in space, goodies and baddies, novels on the Sad Puppies slate. Depth, complexity and a well-informed comment on the real world are essential to good sci-fi writing, which why novels with these characteristics win awards and shallower novels do not. It is not a conspiracy by liberals, women and people of colour to suppress white men, it is the difference between good and bad writing.
I love books like the X-wing novels as they made me love the adventure side of sci-fi and they led me on to more sophisticated and diverse works. I do believe this is an essential process in order to avoid shallow stories, the author's own privileges and a lack of diversity which make stories unbelievable to the reader. If the Puppies want to go back to this kind of writing then sci-fi will become stale, uniform and filled with authors’ unexamined privileges.
Science fiction and horror are natural allies. Science fiction can liberate an author's creativity to come up with new stories and this suits the horror writers’ ability to create imitative ways to scare the reader. Nowhere is the more true than in film, where sci-if concepts can be used to as to unsettle, creep out or completely terrify the audience.
Below is a selection of my five favourite sci-fi horror movies. Before we get started I want to issue a brief spoiler warning for the films that will be discussed below.
The sci-fi concept of teleportation serves as the basis for this horror movie. Jeff Goldblum starts as eccentric scientist Seth Brundle who is secretly working on a teleportation device. After some initial failures Brundle gets the device to work with the help of journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). However when Brundle test the machine on himself he is impaired by jealousy, anger and alcohol and does not notice a common household fly has entered the device. Brundle is fused into a hybrid half-man half-fly creature and over the course the film looses his humanity.
The Fly uses our fear of our animal nature to increase tension. As Brundle becomes more fly he begins to operate under the primal drives of rage and sexual desire. The control that a human usually has over these desires are stripped away as Brundle embraces his animal side. When Quaife discovers that she is pregnant and dreams about giving birth to giant maggot, the film takes darker turn. Brundle is concerned that the child is the last remnant of his humanity and kidnaps Quaife to force her to have the child.
The Fly plays off our fear of break of the thin layer of humanity that separates us from animals. As Brundle becomes more fly he stops suppressing his basic animal desires and becomes more dangerous. In the Fly, the real monster is not the thing Brundle is coming but it is the animal within himself that has been set free.
Cinematic adaptations of Stephen King stories have a mixed tracked record for every Shawshank or the Shining there is a Maximum Overdrive or the awful TV adaption of the Stand. However the Mist delivers as a horror movie, it is tense, claustrophobic and violent.
The Mist stars Thomas Jane who wakes up after a thunderstorm to discover a tree has fallen on his house. He takes his son and neighbour to a grocery store where a strange mist surrounds them. Whenever anyone ventures out into the mist strange creatures devour them.
The tension in The Mist comes from setting, the characters are besieged inside the shop and any escape attempt will result in certain death. Events escalate as a Christian woman forms a doomsday cult around here and inevitably some the monsters break in. The Mist keeps the suspense up by showing as little of the creatures as possible, cloaking them in the eponymous mist, but frequently reminding the audience of how much danger the characters are in.
The sense of hopelessness and impending death makes The Mist both dark as well as tense and bloody. Like most of the best horror films the worst events in The Mist are caused by humans and not the creatures that have them trapped.
Low budget and with plenty of gore, is a winning formula for horror movies and John Carpenter is the master of this approach. Without a doubt his best film is the Thing for being both suspenseful and gory. An alien space ship crashes near an Antarctica research station and the survivor is not friendly. After killing several of the humans, the base’s inhabitants try to fight back. There is only one catch; the Thing that is praying on them can disguise itself as any of the humans.
The fear of the enemy within your ranks runs across all of humanity and the audience can engage with the sense of paranoia that grips the characters. Unlike most horror movies, the Thing is not an external enemy killed but an internal enemy that must be rooted out. As the Thing spreads and takes over more of the humans we see its true form, a disgusting mix of organs, tentacles and bodily fluid. The Thing moves between tense physiological thriller and out and out gore-fest frighteningly quickly.
A sense of isolation runs through the entire film, which adds to the tension. In Antarctica no one will come to the characters rescue so they must deal with the Thing themselves, before it makes its way to the rest of civilization and dooms humanity.
The Thing has enough physiological tension to be interesting and enough gore to be exciting. The use of the enemy within story works with the low budget approach and means that when we do see the Thing, it is brief enough and detailed enough to be truly shocking. The Thing is a low budget gore film with an added physiological element that makes it enduringly scary.
A trip to the edge of the solar system to test a new piece of wormhole technology, what could go wrong? Expect the wormhole created goes to hell and the ship becomes possessed by a violent and malevolent force. The premise of Event Horizon may sound daft but the execution is frightening.
Event Horizon works so well because the revelation of what has happened is spread out over the course of the film. Event Horizon starts with a straightforward rescue mission, which slowly gets worse and worse. Sam Neill is great in the role of the wormhole ship’s creator who goes slowly insane when he is confronted by what he has created.
The tension builds through theological horror, confined spaces, no escape in space, and through moments of gut churning gore. Director Paul W.S. Anderson makes able use of both approaches to horror.
Event Horizon starts off as science fiction and becomes fantasy as the plot develops. As the story moves away from our reality so does the tension until the audience is lost in a world of pain and chaos. When the final revaluation comes it makes perfect sense in the context of the story and is completely terrifying.
One of my favourite movies of all time and certainly my favourite sci-fi horror movie. Ridley Scott's atmospheric horror movies owes as much to the art of H.R. Giger and Francis Bacon as it does to the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. The tension builds slowly and steadily, there is little music and it is long time before the mysterious predator is revealed. When it is finally shown to us it is the stuff of nightmares, a creature that is completely alien, impossible to reason with and utterly deadly.
When the freighter Nostromo picks up a strange signal they divert to investigate an uncharted planet. When the crew lands, they discover a crashed alien spaceship and a huge horde of eggs. One thing leads to another, John Hurt sticks his face in an open egg and later an alien killing machine explodes out of his chest and starts picking off the crew. It’s left to Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to escape the before she too is killed.
The production design of alien lays on the atmosphere, the Nostromo is all steam pipes, cramped spaces and dark places to hide. I cannot think of anywhere worse to be trapped with a monster. The tension builds as the body count rises and leads to a terrifying final confrontation between Ripley and the alien.
Those are my favourite sci-fi horror movies. Do you have any to add to the list? Let me know below.
One of the reasons why I love science fiction so much is the imagination that its authors show in creating the worlds in which their stories are set. I am frequently blown away by how creative sci-fi authors can be when inventing strange new worlds, bizarre aliens and ways of living. Of all the books that I have read in the last few years, none have been more interesting or unusual than The Quantum Thief, the debut novel by Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi. The Quantum Thief surprised me with how outlandish an author’s imagination can be when creating characters, plot and sci-fi concepts to inhabit a fictional world. What I found most fascinating about the novel is that part of it is set in a moving city on Mars, called the Oubliette, where time is their currency. This made me think, how would this work and what economic issues would it bring up?
The first thing to note is that the Oubliette is not a post-scarcity society as are some in science fiction. There is resource scarcity - such as physical space, power, food and luxury items - which means a system of allocating resources amongst the Oubliette's citizens is necessary. Time is the medium through which the Oubliette allocates its scarce resources, as each citizen is given a certain amount of time which ticks away second by second but can be exchanged for goods and services. When a citizen's time expires their personality is download into a machine body known as a Quiet. The Quiet do the majority of the labour in the Oubliette, certainly all the essential jobs including keeping the city moving. A citizen serves time as a Quiet, only maintaining a fraction of their humanity, before being reborn as human and the process begins again.
We are introduced to the Oubliette through the eyes of a visitor, Jean le Flambeur, a famous thief who is looking for memories he hid in the moving city. This is an effective way of showing this strange society to the reader without the need for heavy-handed exposition. We see how time can be exchanged for goods and services, but we do not see how someone amasses additional time to spend. This would presumably be from selling goods or services to other citizens, however no one in the Oubliette appears to work. The majority of the labour is done by the Quiet. The Oubliette's economy is a strange mix of slavery and jury duty.
How would such an economy function in reality? There would probably be a problem with inflation as a citizen's money is constantly losing value. Any banks that exist would have to make the interest they offer on any savings very attractive to counter the effects of inflation. Although the natural rate of inflation built into their economy, i.e. the passage of time, would make investment more attractive than saving. However, investing your time in a new businesses to create economic growth and technological development would be risky. There is no welfare state in the Oubliette and a bad investment would be a quick ticket to the Quiet, thus most investors are likely to be risk-averse, which would hold back rapid economic growth and technological development.
Most normal economic process (such as investment, taxation, government spending, public services, importing and exporting) could not exist in the Oubliette. However, there is clearly a need for some public services as there is crime, namely the Gogol pirates, and thus a police force which must require some resources and its employees some remuneration. The citizens who provide services such as policing, and attempt to apprehend Jean le Flambeur, are presented as hobbyists who do this work out of interest rather than a means of securing an income. Most likely these people are already wealthy and thus do not need payment and therefore taxation and government spending is not necessary either. However, if most public services are provided on a voluntary basis then the Oubliette is one large economic shock away from the complete collapse of its essential services.
The lack of saving, investment, government spending, imports and exports means that the Oubliette is a static economy with a low level of economic growth. This plays into the politics of the society. The Oubliette is a secretly totalitarian society ruled over by a shadowy group known as the cryptarchs. Jean le Flambeur claims that it is a secret prison based on the idea of a panopticon, where every action is visible to those watching over it.
The main social value of the Oubliette is based around the importance of privacy, which discourages the sharing of personal experience of society and thus prevents the collective examination of social structures. In short, a ‘keep yourself to yourself’ mentality does not encourage the challenging of power structures. All of this points towards the Oubliette being a static but wealthy society, which appears to give its citizens a lot of personal freedom but below the surface it is very limiting and controlling.
Despite its static nature, there is inequality in the Oubliette. One character, the millionaire Christian Unruh, is clearly richer than the average citizen. There are also beggars, who are only a few minutes away from being sent to the Quiet, thus the Oubliette has unemployment. There must be a trade economy reassigning time from the bottom of society to the top for inequality to occur. The reader is introduced to shopkeepers, including a chocolate shop owner, which links into the point above about investment in the Oubliette being more attractive than saving due to inflation. All this points to a degree of economic dynamism thriving beneath the surface of the oppressive cryptarch regime.
There are no comparable real world examples of economies that are similar to the Oubliette. The closest example I can think of is Cuba. Cuba is a society which balances personal freedom with an authoritarian government. Cuba's currency, the National Peso, can only be used by its citizens, which prevents imports and exports, much in the same way that time cannot be exported or imported from the Oubliette. This leads to the country remaining static for political reasons. Beneath the surface of this static and controlling economy is a thriving and dynamic unofficial economy where citizens work around the government's restrictions.
The economy of the Oubliette is interesting and raises a lot of questions. Aside from analysing the implications of using time as a currency, The Quantum Thief is a really imaginative book. Its fantastic story is weaved around the setting of the Oubliette and it has interesting characters and a lot of tension. The Oubliette merely provides the backdrop for the drama of the story. The Quantum Thief is an original science fiction novel which shows a lot of creativity and I would recommend it to any fan of the genre.
You can tell a lot about a society's top priority from its largest buildings. Renaissance Florence built what was then the world's biggest dome to show the glory of the Catholic Church. The Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu built an enormous palace to show the power of the Communist Party. Throughout British history, we have used architecture to proclaim the power of feudal tyrants, the church and now the wealth of the financial sector. All over London, huge structures are rising up to proclaim the dominance of the financial elite over every aspect of our society.
London has been remade several times in its lifetime to suit contemporary values. In the late 19th century, the urban landscape changed dramatically as advancements in construction technology made building on a new scale possible. This was the heyday of the railway; Kings Cross and Pafddington Stations were built and the rail network was extended even to tiny seaside towns. People's lives were changed by new technology and new buildings, and isolated settlements were now joined in a great, single whole.
At the same time, across the Channel the same technological advancements were being used to build the Eiffel Tower. This was the largest man-made structure of all time when it was finished and it still dominates Paris today, showing how great our aspirations and accomplishments can be.
These urban changes, big and small, were aimed at remaking society entirely. The technological innovations that led to larger buildings, bridges and railways changed the urban landscape and the lives of the people who lived there. This was the birth of the modernist era, where the world could be made better by technology and collective endeavor.
The modernist era also gave us the new high rises and brutalist social housing estates, that were also constructed on a monumental scale. Again, these were a dramatic change to the urban landscape with the aim of improving people's lives through architecture. People believed that architecture could make the world a better place, and people believed in a future in which we all would lead fuller and more prosperous lives.
These plans of improving people through architecture failed, and the social housing that was built has become a symbol or urban decay, alienation, crime, drugs, family breakdown and social ills. Some of this reputation is not entirely deserved and has been propagated by those who are politically opposed to social housing. The valuable bits of social housing were sold off as the public property passed into private hands. Once again, the urban landscape changed from one of public spaces to private spaces. Housing, parks, streets and walkways which were once open to all were quickly closed off as private property.
Today our urban landscape is still changing, but now we do not aim to remake society or to improve people. The landscape is becoming dominated by the symbols of private financial wealth. This is most noticeable in the giant monuments to unrestrained capitalism that dominate the London skyline, and which are the largest objects in our society.
We still build on an epic scale and we still make structures which push the limit of the largest human-made objects. The world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, contains private offices, apartments, a luxury hotel and exclusive shops. We have come along way from the Eiffel Tower and Paddington Station, which showed how technological progress could change the lives of everyone, as these new buildings show how the benefits of recent technology advancements are confined to a privileged few.
Buildings like the Burj Khalifa - or its smaller London cousin, the Shard - are still built with the "monumental style" that the Eiffel Tower has, but they are closed to the public. They have become symbols of a global financial elite that lives in a different world to everyone else, like the medieval fortresses or the Palaces of Communist dictators.
The idea that we can can make the world new, that we can use architecture to improve people's lives and that the future can be better if we work together has been dismissed as so much misguided, wishful thinking. The social housing projects of the interwar and postwar period are looked back on as failures, never to be repeated. The result is the decline of the social housing stock and increased pressure on the private rental market. Now millions of people are forced to live in substandard accommodation and are being exploited by those lucky enough to benefit from the conversion of public space into private space. We urgently need to build more social homes, we need a movement to improve people's lives with architecture and we need to fix the social problems caused by the housing shortage.
Today, rather than building with aspirations to improve people's lives, we push the poor further and further away and enclose more and more of the public land as private space. The only thing we aspire to is to build is huge monuments to financial wealth and oil wealth. We need to aspire to be better before we turn back into a pre-modern society.
The living conditions of the poorest in society are getting worse as our building technology continues to improve. If we do not change, we will live in a world permanently divided between those who live in epic structures like the Burj Khalifa and those who live in slums worse than those of Victorian London.
One of the tenets of modernism was to question the narrative of continuous social progress. We need to question that narrative now as our world changes for the worse. We need to go back to that spirit of optimism about the future that the early modernist period encapsulated. The epic structures of the future, those which push the limits of what humans can achieve, need to be for all, not just a privileged few.
On my way up the tube escalator, I stare at the posters that line the walls. Charity fun runs, exclusive estate agents, gyms offering extraordinary weight loss in an improbably short period of time. Then something catches my eye: rows of people sat in front of a cinema screen, the London skyline lit up behind them. It looks brilliant. Watching a film on a cool summer night with a spectacular view of iconic London landmarks. The magic of cinema transposed into a modern urban setting. Gone are the plain out of town multiplexes in shopping centres, instead this cinema in the heart of a global city. The event was probably very expensive, even considering the outrageous prices charged by some cinemas, but worth it for the experience.
I am the target audience for this event and others like it. I fit into the correct consumer demographic; someone who describes themselves as "passionate" about film in consumer surveys. I am young, urban, liberal, interested in culture, professional, modern, with no children and in possession of disposable income. I am someone who values experience over possessions, who thinks being well travelled is more important than owning a good car. I am a cliché of the late twentysomething, early thirtysomething Londoner, writing this blog post on an Apple product in a chain coffee shop.
A range of products and experiences have risen to cater for this lucrative demographic, one of the few that feels wealthy – or, at least, is not concerned about personal debt. These products includes secret cocktail bars, immersive zombie survival theatre and restaurants with unusual themes. All have the inflated prices that comes with urban chic. Rooftop Film Club is just another example of this.
Do not mistake any of the above for a criticism - these events are a lot of fun and usually put on with dazzling creative flair and attention to detail. They are experiences perfectly crafted to make you feel like you are a part of something exclusive, something special. Life would become boring if it only consisted of the same pubs, TV shows, books, etc, and these unusual events provide the variety which keeps life interesting. London is an expensive, crowded, noisy, dirty place to live, and these unique experiences make life in the capital worth living, they remind you how magical London can be. I feel very fortunate to be in a position (in terms of time and money) to experience some of them.
A lot of these experiences include new ways of exhibiting film. I am certainly in favour of deconstructing what a film screening is and taking it in new directions. Film screenings should not be confined to multiplexes or the basements of independent DVD shops. The ways of experiencing film should be as diverse as film itself. Also it is a great idea to combine the screening of a film with complementary experiences, from meals to immersive theatre. This process of bringing the film to life while still keeping the immersive experience intact is a fantastic new way to experience cinema.
You can probably sense a rather large ‘but’ coming in the near future. Changing the way we exhibit film is a positive thing but the films on offer are becoming increasingly generic. These new screening events typically choose successful films from the 70s, 80s and 90s - Star Wars, Back to the Future, Shawshank Redemption - great films from the heyday of blockbusters, when they were still fresh and original. Alternatively they show the most mainstream franchise blockbusters from today, the Marvel shared universe, the DC shared universe, reboots of classic films series and TV shows - Mad Max, The Avengers, The Man From UNCLE. The ways of exhibiting films are getting more interesting while the films themselves are getting duller.
This is a process we are seeing across mainstream cinema as a whole. The multiplexes are investing in new projection technology and sound systems to make the cinema experience more immersive. The range of food and drink being offered is expanding beyond popcorn and Galaxy Minstrels. New and exciting ways of watching films are starting up from curated online streaming services like MUBI, to events like Hot Tub Cinema. The multiplexes have never been shinier but Hollywood's rising levels of risk adversity means our choice of film is getting narrower. We can choose between different competing superhero franchises, actions movies into embarrassingly high number of sequels, or formulaic vehicles for stars and directors who should have retired a long time ago to make way for new wave of original cinema. There is a limit to how fancy you can make a multiplex to cover up how uninspiring the films are.
Events like Rooftop Film Club, Hot Tub Cinema or Secret Cinema rely heavily on the good films from the past. This partly due to the cost of acquiring prints of new films and the fact that if you are going to spend north of £50 on a cinema trip, most people would prefer to know they will enjoy the film. Still, this reliance of successful blockbusters of the past only underlines how humdrum modern blockbusters have become.
We are drowning in sequels, remakes and adaptations and there is barely an original film in sight. This is partly why events like Rooftop Film Club are popular, as they are a way to breathe novelty back into the cinema-going experience in an age where novelty is too risky for the big budgets of mainstream blockbusters.
There is nothing wrong with events such as Rooftop Film Club, which I have perhaps unfairly focused on in this article. The cinema experience these new film exhibitions offer is interesting and innovative. Seeing a classic film on a hot summer night with one of the world's most iconic skylines around you is a once in a lifetime experience. My source of disappointment is that events like this are necessary to keep people like me passionate about cinema because the regular cinema going experience is so devoid of passion.
I would prefer more original films in regular, boring, cinemas to boring films and original ways of showing them. I would happily make that trade to have some more variety from Hollywood. Rooftop Film Club and similar events are fantastic ways to enjoy film as well as injecting some originality into the medium. However, they are, at best, a temporary fix to the problems of Hollywood becoming increasingly risk adverse. As films become increasingly similar and fans are offered less choice, people will turn away from the medium and interesting ways of showing films will not stop this. As much as I enjoy original ways of screening films, I would prefer some original films.
Bad world building. I have spoken about it before, and how annoying it can be for a reader. Usually, I define bad world building as a fictional world which does not make sense, a world whose structures fall apart under detailed scrutiny. This leads to an important question: what level of scrutiny should good world building stand up to?
Some fictional universes stand up to detailed scrutiny, such as Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which fills in the entire history of humanity from now until the future with enormous attention to detail. Some works of fiction do not stand up to scrutiny, such as A. A. Attanasio's The Last Legends of Earth, which leaves a lot of key questions unanswered. Where did the zōtl come from? How could something like the zōtl evolve naturally?
Last week my favourite podcast, the podcast from the news magazine New Statesmen, released a special 100th episode which looked in detail at politics, economics, education and sex in the Harry Potter universe. This was approached in a spirit of both serious debate and also light-hearted fun between Harry Potter fans. What became quickly apparent is that the universe of Harry Potter does not stand up to the level of scrutiny that a newspaper gives to the politics and economics of our world.
The issues identified by several the New Statesman's writers were mainly around three unanswered practical questions about the Harry Potter universe: can wizards vote in muggle elections? do wizards vote at all? The Minister for Magic is appointed, but by means which we do not know. This does not sound very transparent or accountable.
Other unexplained issues include why are the Weasleys so poor, when their father is a senior civil servant and wizards seem to exist in a post-scarcity society? A major problem is caused by the fact that the wizarding world is closed to letting many muggles in and their population appears to be heavily skewed towards the elderly. Without the ability to bring in cheap labour who will look after all the old wizards? From the outside, the wizarding world looks on the point of collapse.
It is unreasonable to expect even a world as detailed as Harry Potter to make perfect sense when put under the same microscope that we use to analyse economic and political issues in our world. No fictional world can stand up to that level of scrutiny, as it would have to be as complicated as our world. Even enormous virtual worlds, such as Eve Online, with huge populations and millions of procedurally generated worlds, still have a simplified versions of our own political or economic systems.
While admitting that all fictional worlds fall apart when examined under a microscope, the process still raises some questions about the writing of Harry Potter. For example, why does Ron not understand some fairly basic stuff about magic (you cannot create something out of nothing), despite being in the last year of his magical education? Also why is a series of books populated by teenagers strangely sexless, and why does every character marry someone who they met in their early teenaged years? The wizarding worlds seems to have some very conservative social values.
These questions about sex and education are legitimate criticism of the writing, but it does not matter that the economy and politics of Harry Potter make no sense because that is not what the books are about. Harry Potter is about a group of characters’ difficult journey into adulthood, and the world around them exists to facilitate this story.
When examining the quality of the world building of Harry Potter, or of any other fictional universe, there are two main issues to consider. Firstly, is it a reasonably functioning world? Does it make sense to the reader? Harry Potter does make sense as a universe while you read the books. The world of the Hunger Games novels make sense – it is a simpler world than Harry Potter, but it still makes sense. The world of Divergent does not make sense: how could such a world come to exist and what keeps its strangely arbitrary social structure going?
The second issue is: does the fictional world achieve the goals that it sets itself? Does it facilitate the story? In Harry Potter, the wizarding world makes Harry's story more interesting. Its structure and power systems also reflect the theme of standing up to intolerance that is explored throughout the books. Divergent meets the second criteria but not the first. Harry Potter satisfies both criteria so it does not matter that detailed exploration of the politics or economics of the wizarding world reveals a lot of holes.
The advice I would give to writers concerned about how much scrutiny their fictional world should be able to stand up to is that it depends on what you want to achieve with your fictional world. Do you want to make a specific point about our world or the human race which will be exemplified by your fictional world? Do you want to explore a specific idea? Your world should make sense to your reader as they read the story, and it should aid the story you are trying to tell. Beyond that, it does not need to stand up to detailed dissection.
No one expects a work of fiction to be impervious to examination, so long as the story and characters are engaging. Despite the fact that any world will eventually collapse under scrutiny, the process of looking in detail at the worlds we enjoy reading about is fun and raises important issues. The New Statesman did this in a very positive way when looking at Harry Potter, and it was done by fans who are passionate about the books and wanted to talk about the issues they raise. This was not about breaking down the world of Harry Potter, but about looking at it in interesting ways. It does not matter how much examination a fictional world can stand up to, just so long as looking at it raises interesting questions.