Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dystopia beckons



Nobody's supposed to like dystopia. The very idea of wrack and ruin is meant to have negative connotations. Chaos and destruction are things we should be avoiding. It's not meant to be beautiful. Yet the imagery and the art of it draws many, myself included.

Dystopia is like a Great White Shark. No one wants to get in the water with one, but from a safe distance, they look awesome.

Maybe it's because we live in a safe society, with rules and limits. Maybe, from our safe zone, destruction and chaos holds a grim fascination. Maybe we are drawn to opposites, the way we are drawn to read horror, for instance. Or war.

People read, watch or play fantasies. So it's strange that dystopia should be one of them. Maybe nihilism runs deep through the human psyche.

In the 19th Century, it was very fashionable for wealthy English lords and ladies to travel to Venice. Britain was then at the height of its power, with an empire that spanned the world, while Venice was the home of a former power that had fallen on hard times, and had been in decline for centuries. There's a brilliant piece in Susanna Clarke's book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, where the opinions of the privileged visitors are satirised:
They thought the façades of the houses very magnificent - they could not praise them highly enough. But the sad decay, which buildings, bridges and church all displayed, seemed to charm them even more. They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world... they would not have been at all surprized to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city - until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.
The century before, people had been fascinated by the ruins of the Roman Empire. In the century after, people became fascinated by the ruins of the Egyptian Empire. It seems natural now to consider their remnants as tourist attractions, but not that long ago, the local people simply saw historical ruins as junk.

In Britain, peasant farmers and landowners alike pillaged and destroyed the remains of Roman bathhouses and villas. Hill forts were ploughed over and medieval castles were dismantled for stone. In Shrewsbury, Thomas Telford, the renowned civil engineer of the Industrial Revolution, drove a road straight through a wing of Shrewsbury Abbey without really worrying about its structure. Vast swathes of history were lost in this way before preservation orders came into being to protect them.

The Industrial Revolution's own history turned to trash in the area we now know as Ironbridge Gorge. For decades the area was just known for its slag heaps and overgrown ruins, and it was considered an eyesore and a dump. Then they built the new town of Telford (ironies abound) nearby and set about clearing away the growth and turning the ruins into another tourist attraction.

Maybe it's nostalgia rather than nihilism that elicits our fascination with ruins. Modernists certainly thought so, and they had no time for looking backwards when they preferred to look forwards. Science Fiction used to be modernist, with its depictions of fantastic future societies, new ways of living and even new ways of being. People say Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was probably the first true science fiction novel, but the Positivist trend of science fiction at the height of its glory in the sixties and seventies actually reaches further back than Mary Shelley - right back indeed to the 16th Century novel Utopia, by Thomas More. Utopia is the opposite of dystopia, and science fiction ran with this, driven by the Enlightenment belief in Man´s ability to improve itself.

Which is also ironic, since Utopia, like the writings of the philosopher Rousseau that followed two centuries later, is actually a throwback to some Arcadian past that never happened. But I digress.

Mary Shelley's novel runs counter to the humanist, positivist beliefs that underpinned much of science fiction, and drops a dystopian stone into the utopian well, listening to its echoes. Her novel explored the folly of Man tinkering with technology, and life itself. In Christian myth, it was God who created life. Shelley wanted to show what happened when Man usurped God.

Mary Shelley was the opposite of a Humanist. She was a Romantic, which was a loose title for a group of poets and philosophers who were sceptical of the Humanist power of reason, or of Man's power over nature or destiny. Humanism gave us Hitler and Stalin. Romanticism gave us hippies and Environmentalism. Western society has always been a curious mixture of these two opposing strands.

If it was Humanism that gave us science fiction's galactic empires and experimental space societies, then it was Romanticism that gave us the Post-Apocalypse. And Zombies.

It was Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Shelley, who wrote Ozymandias, which tells us of a fictional traveller who discovered the remnants of a stone statue alone in the desert:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Ruins are thus a powerful way of reminding us of our own mortality, and of the fragility of civilisation. And if that's a Romantic thought, then maybe I'm a Romantic. I'm fascinated by the fall and decline of societies, including the one I'm living in. I'm drawn to ruins and the stories they can no longer tell.

Outside Dover, a series of underground forts lie in decay. Built during the Napoleonic Wars by French prisoners-of-war, they were abandoned and left to rot. I had the chance to explore some of the tunnels, and to me they were as magisterial and mysterious as cathedrals.



If they had been properly lit, repaired and turned into a museum, I wouldn't have been as awed as I was the day I felt my way along the spooky, echoing tunnels. I've always been drawn to the illicit exploration of truly abandoned places, untouched by civilised attempts to preserve or gentrify them. I once read an article about a man living near the Normandy beaches in France, who collected the rusted carcasses of tanks, some dragged up from the sea, and displayed them at his home near the beach. I would have loved to explore their deteriorated, and still deteriorating, remains. By contrast, I once visited a tank museum where many remnants from the war had been cleaned up, repainted and displayed for visitors to see. It was a boring experience (and I love tanks), as the vehicles on display seemed artificial and ripped from their actual context. They were like models. So for me, it's not just historical nostalgia. The raw unsanitised feel of history, the sense of something once real that was now lost, is almost a spiritual experience for me. This is how I've felt when I've walked through the wooded remains of hill forts, feeling the presence of the Celts who once dwelt there. This is what I felt when I explored old airfields, imagining the Spitfires on the runway, and the maintenance crews in the ruined workshops, having a cigarette as they waited for the planes to return. It was what I felt walking through the deeply worn paths of a medieval quarry, in the footsteps of the masons on their way to work.

Imagination plays a large part in this fascination, I suppose, and I prefer to imagine the history myself, rather than have someone do it in a museum with plaques and dummies. Maybe that's why I'm a writer, rather than a curator of antiquities.

Dystopia has carved out a large swathe for itself in fiction today, with post-apocalypse wastelands and nuclear or biological catastrophe delighting millions. One of my favourite games of all time is the Fallout series, set after a nuclear war, where you explore the devastated wastelands, encountering mutated creatures and ghouls, and embarking on quests among the surviving settlers. If I didn't have a life, I'd probably spend way too much time in those wastelands, checking out spooky places and picking over the remnants of modern society. As it is, it's addictive enough, and the game's designers understand well the attraction of exploring decay, so I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. In real life, there's a whole bunch of people who call themselves Urban Explorers, addicted to the exploration of abandoned buildings, ships and tunnels.

What makes decay beautiful? I don't know. Maybe it's the setting: the solitude of being alone in a place that you know was once busy. Maybe it's a fascination with seeing the effect of time itself, which reminds us that everything is in constant flux and that nothing, not even us, is forever.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Oh Benedict, where art thou?



1.1 million migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, most of them young men, entered Germany last year. Those who said taking on so many was not a good idea were called heartless or racist. Twelve days ago, hundreds of women in Cologne were harassed, sexually assaulted and robbed by gangs of those same migrants.

Benedict Cumberbatch, renowned actor and amateur activist, had much to say about the former fact, but has so far been silent on the latter fact. As have many of his ideological travellers.

Where art thou, Benedict? Why the long face?

Is it ominous realisation that you see before you?

New Orbit



I think this is the fifth attempt at the cover for this book, and I can safely say this is the one I prefer the most. So much so, that it may be my last attempt. For a good while, at least. I've always struggled to get the cover right for this book - and indeed, the blurb - as it's such a varied and involved story. At over three hundred pages, it's my longest story too, and there's a lot of stuff going on in it, plus a lot of characters. For this reason, I think, I found it difficult to summarise, in either word or picture form, for the reader. Should I include the gang warfare, the space piracy or the Yucatan solar system empire? Should I mention Crisi the idealistic ex-cop, Pulia the rebel dance teacher or Nilés the amoral business junkie? Or Kagame, the hapless ship's doctor? Or, or.... all the other stuff. It was hard sometimes to just nail the book's description down on one definition, and, of course, as a rookie writer, I tried to include everything, thinking that was what I was meant to do.

To do anything less felt like I wasn't doing justice to the book.

And when it came to the cover, I tried to be too clever. Not for me the standard 'spaceship over a planet' sci-fi cover. Oh no, I had to do better than that.

But sometimes it's better to just drop the fancy pretensions and go with something simple.

There's a lesson there, I'm sure. And actually, the cover does include another aspect of the book, which in this case is the arrival of the triple rail freighter, the Costaguana, which acts as a fatal catalyst for most of the plot.

But aside from all that, I just think it looks good. And with that I'll close Photoshop before I'm tempted to tinker with it some more. Enough already, this is the new cover, and it's staying that way.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Farce Awakens

"Getting too old for this shit..."

Just been to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. No spoilers here, but I have to comment on it, as it really wasn't what I was expecting at all. The popcorn guy said to me, "I've seen it three times already. You'll love it." I assume he was referring to the movie, and as I'd heard nothing but positive things in the media about it, I was looking forward to a good day's entertainment.
OMG, how wrong could I be? I know it makes me a heretic, but watching this movie was a distinctly underwhelming experience. I mean, to start with, it felt cheap. CHEAP? Yes, really. The other Star Wars movies always felt lavish, and Lucas, for all his faults, made them look great, with sweeping panorama shots of landscapes, ships arriving, etc, before every major scene or new location. The Force Awakens, on the other hand, looked and felt like it was made for TV. I know previous movies have been criticised for having too much CGI, but this one needed a whole lot more, because it looked crap. Some of it could have been filmed in the field behind my house. Come to think of it, almost every location looked like Earth. Which obviously it was, but you're meant to at least think you're in a galaxy far, far away, and not just over New Zealand (that was Lord Of The Rings). And what the hell happened to the acting?!
I know Star Wars was never famous for its acting skills, but they weren't as bad as this. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher have all been dug up again for this re-run, and they look tired and jaded. I saw Harrison Ford a few years ago in Cowboys And Aliens, and he put in an excellent performance as an ageing rancher, but in this movie he looks like he's had all the fire sucked out of him. With its original actors and constant references to past glories, I felt this movie was trying to be too reverential to the originals, to the point that it just got in the way of the plot. The other actors are all unknowns, and to be honest, I still don't know them. The lead woman looks like a Hunger Games rip-off, sans the charisma, the black guy has the most interesting back story, and comes close to getting the best dialogue, but really, there's not enough time spent on these characters, they don't shine enough and I had no sympathy for them whatsoever. No wonder the cute orange droid gets so much attention. I know Hayden Christensen was pretty awful in the prequels, but after what I saw today, he's been elevated to Oscar-winning status. Seriously.
And the plot? Well, if you've seen the other movies, you'll find no surprises here, and that's all I'll say about it. The bad guy, Kylo Ren, is a cut-price Darth Vader, who, I kid you not, will be discounted further halfway through the film. The Death Star? Well, like I said, no spoilers, but you will get the sense that you've seen this movie before. Almost everything in it is a copy or a reference to past stuff. So I'm left wondering what all the hype was about. George Lucas got a lot of stick for his handling of the prequels - he's a bad script writer and a terrible director - so when I heard he'd been taken off this movie, and his directing chair given to J.J. Abrams, I had high hopes. But all I can say now is: Come back George, all is forgiven. Your artistic eye and your childish sense of wonder are sorely needed. I know I saw some X-Wings and Tie Fighters, along with a smidgen of lightsaber fighting, but I don't get the feeling I just watched a Star Wars movie. There was a whole bunch of stuff missing, and the most important missing piece was this: Atmosphere.


Suddenly I'm feeling nostalgic for The Phantom Menace. I think I need a brain scan.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Star Wars vs Star Trek



Not a debate, but a full-on trailer for a movie that will never be made, which is a pity, because I think it rocks. I'm not all that confident that the new Star Wars will be any good - it will be targeted at the me that I was, rather than the me I've become - and Star Trek has never floated my boat, but put together... well, that's something else.

I really like it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August 99c sale!


Yes, that's right folks. Each of the five X-Troop books is now available for just 99c (99p) till the end of August. Am I mad? Well, of course I'm mad. I'm a writer. But don't worry about that. If you have any of the stories missing from your collection, now's the time to get your sweaty mitts on them, before my meds kick in.

Amazon Links:
X-Troop 1: Amped
X-Troop 2: Assembled
X-Troop 3: The Tollon Codex
X-Troop 4: Bunker 51
X-Troop 5: Arctic Run

The X-Troop Collection: Books 1-5


The X-Troop series is now available as a complete collection in one ebook.
Follow Alex Harvey and his elite team as they track down alien infiltrators through the backstreets of England, the jungles of Guatemala and the frozen wastes of Canada. Hidden among the human population, the genetically engineered aliens have plans that could doom humanity, and only X-Troop, with their own genetic enhancements, can stop them. But with alien masterminds and shadowy government organisations to contend with too, Alex knows the odds are stacked against his team, because nothing is quite what it seems.

Available at Amazon and Amazon UK