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Friday 24 June 2016

Even gorillas gotta start small

Photo copyright Lalo Pangue; Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Developing a show for television can be a rabbit hole experience. Leo Hartas and I spent a year working on a show called Carnival Park. Why was it called that? Because the producers liked the name. Well, of course they did; they picked it. Three production companies were involved – in Britain, Spain and Norway – and they were pleased as punch that Carnival Park sounds similar to Carnaval Parque sounds similar to Karneval Park. In meetings, somebody would say the name and that was often the only time that all the producers could prick up their ears and smile at each other in mutual recognition

So Leo and I had to fit a story and characters around a title. In television parlance, at least among writers, the technical term for that is arse about face. Yet it keeps on happening. Producers acquire a property – or, very often, simply imagine they have acquired a property. Writers, being a biddable tribe of fellows devoted to developing TV shows on a non-profit basis, then go along with the producers in the hope that the whole process will end in a commission.

That commission seldom happens. And the reason it seldom happens is because the producers have led the creative process. If you end up hired (that should be “hired” in inverted commas, by the way) as a writer on a TV show, tear up whatever they give you and create your own vision. It may not get made, but it’ll have a lot better chance. And, crucially, you might stay sane.

One example of a show concept I worked on briefly. Some producers felt that they had some claim to the King Kong IP. Now that one, let me tell you, is a real tangled web. Between Universal, RKO and the estate of producer Merian C Cooper, there was a bit of a ding-dong over King Kong that went on for years, nay decades. The final legal ruling? It’s simply too tedious to go into. I’d rather be shot off the top of the Empire State Building. If you are interested then (a) may the ape god help you and (b) here are the full wearying details on Wiki.

Where was I? Oh yes, notwithstanding all of those earlier court battles over the rights, these producers believed they had found a loophole or something that would allow them to create a "King Kong Junior" television show and/or videogame for kids. Maybe they intended to change the character’s name, though the treatment I knocked up indicates that at the time they briefed me they had no fear of a court battle with either NBC Universal (who would have had a case) or the Cooper estate (who wouldn’t).

What is even more astonishing is that this is only one of three "junior King Kong" projects (one a movie, one a game) that I've been roped into by different groups of producers over the years. It's one of those concepts - others are any famous literary character as a vampire or vampire hunter, or any famous historical character plus zombies - that keep churning around in entertainment industries whose corporate crushing of real inspiration and open access to bullshit artists have left them repeatedly scraping the same place in the bottom of the same barrel.

For curiosity’s sake, then – as this is a TV show that has literally no hope of ever getting made, other than by NBC themselves – here is that treatment. The show's title? Yeah… Not my idea. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the keyboard monkey.


Doesn’t matter where you live in the world. Or when. Don’t let anybody tell you that being a 15-year-old kid is easy.

Take TABU. He’s keen, clever and wants to know about everything. Most of all, he longs to know what lies beyond the massive stockade doors and high rock walls that separate the coast of his Pacific home from the island’s mysterious interior.

“No one knows. Don’t ask!” his teacher, the village shaman HORANGI tells him.

“It’s dangerous. Keep out!” warns his mom, MAHINA.

“Get lost, freak!” say the other kids.

Tabu is the odd one out among the island’s kids. He has the problem of being short-sighted in a time and a culture that has never discovered glasses. He can’t join in the ball game because he's barely able to see his hand in front of his face. He blurts out secrets without realizing who he’s talking to. Squinting up at the white peak in the centre of the island, he reckons “it looks like a skull” - but everyone else just thinks that’s just Tabu with his head in the clouds as usual.

Tabu’s dad, LANI, used to be the local sports hero – he could dive deeper, row faster and throw a spear further than any other man on the island. That’s until a busted leg put him on the sidelines of life. He’s more disappointed at himself than at his son, but he has no idea how to bridge the gap between them. Tabu's mom was once the local beauty, the aloha version of prom queen, but in twenty years she’s gone from drop-dead gorgeous to a danger to shipping. Even Horangi is careful not to get on the wrong side of Mahina.

As for Tabu’s kid sisters, HIKA and HOKA – he thinks of them like a pair of chattering monkeys whose sole aim is to drive him up a palm tree. He sometimes almost wishes they’d get sacrificed to the god Kong who lives on the other side of that wall. (Not that anybody gets sacrificed anymore. That was all in the bad old days. But it’s a threat Horangi still uses to keep folks in line.)

Tabu has one thing going for him. He’s like a dolphin in the water, slicing through the waves, diving down to pick up pearls from the sea bed. Nobody is a better swimmer. And on his fifteenth birthday, at the annual flower festival, he reckons he’ll get a chance to prove it.

Except… OROTO the school bully gets all the trophies. And he doesn’t want to be shown up by a kid who can’t tell a stone crab from a coconut at twenty paces. So Oroto talks Horangi into holding a qualifying round. The swimmers have to identify various threats like jellyfish, shark fins, and so on. As the pictures are held up, it’s all a blur to poor Tabu. He’s sent packing without even having dipped a toe in the sea.

He’s furious. He never got a chance to show what he could do. The injustice almost makes him choke. Ashamed of his tears, he hides out in his hut far from the feast. As night falls after the contest and Oroto gets all the prizes and garlands, Tabu listens to the merriment and has never felt so low. He thinks he’s alone there till he notices his dad, sitting out on the veranda staring at the moon.

Tabu’s dad knows about unfairness. He went from hero to zero overnight when he injured his leg. Reminiscing over long-faded glories, he tells Tabu about the night he climbed over the stockade wall. Like Tabu, in those days Lani had a thirst to find out for himself about whatever was forbidden.

“You went to the interior? What did you find?” Tabu asks him.

“I don’t know. Coming back I fell from the wall. That was how I broke my leg. Never played the ball game again. Never been much of a hunter since then, or much of anything except a drunk I guess. I was in a fever three days and they say I was raving about all kinds of crazy stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Only Horangi knows. He sat up with me in the medicine hut and he’s not telling. But your mother – she was there when they found me, and she took my pack home. And these are the things I brought out of the interior with me, son. They’re yours now.”

Lani takes three things out of an old box under the bed. There’s a scrap of stiff paper, glossy on one side. Tabu has never seen a photo. “It’s such a lifelike picture!” he says, peering at it. The image shows a baby with a streak of white in her black hair.

There’s also a little metal frame with two circular bits of glass in it. Tabu notices how it concentrates the firelight into pinpoints on the wall behind him. He lifts it to his eyes – and everything snaps into focus. He hooks the frame over his ears and gasps as he sees the stars for the first time. A million tiny jewels like fireflies across the universe. “I can see you, pop. I can see everything. It’s so sharp!”

And then there’s the third item. It’s hard and white and it’s as big as a mango pit. “What’s this?”

Lani dips his hand in a pot and brings out something small. He puts it into Tabu’s hand. A milk tooth. “Remember when you were a little kid and you’d wiggle those loose?”

Tabu compares it with the big white object. It’s a tooth as well – but what a tooth! Tabu holds it up beside his jaw. “Whatever animal this came from, I could get my whole head in its mouth.”

Lani sees Tabu look up towards the huge wooden gates that seal off the interior of the island. “Don’t go there, son,” he says, rubbing his aching leg. “You don’t want to end up like me.”

Well, that’s it right there. That's the choice in life, isn't it. Do you stay where it’s boring and safe, or do you go looking for everything that’s good and bad and in-between? Every generation, every one of us has to make that choice for themselves. To Tabu, it’s no dilemma at all. Life in the village holds nothing for him. And thanks to the spectacles, he can see clearly now.

That night, Tabu packs up a kit bag and climbs over the stockade wall. His adventure is about to begin.

On the far side of the island lives a teenage girl with a white streak through her jet black hair. Poppea (POPPY, to you) is like a fairytale princess living in a tall half-timbered cottage that stands on a rock a few hundred yards out from the shore. It’s the sort of home you’d expect to find in a quaint European village with cobbled streets rather than on a tropical Pacific island. How did it get there? In fact it was built from the wreckage of the Prospero, a ship that was wrecked here over a decade ago.

Poppy’s mother is ALTAIRA ADAMS, the Prospero’s captain, who came to the island years ago in search of a mysterious flower said to hold the secret of eternal youth. Yep, Altaira is a bit of a mad scientist if you want the truth. She’s been so obsessed with her quest that she’s hardly noticed her daughter growing up.

Left to run wild, Poppy soon took to going off for days at a time. And she has made a friend. A big, hulking, loyal friend called KONG, who at this tender age is still “only” about twelve feet tall.

But Poppy has never seen another human being of her own age. So you can just imagine the mixture of fascination, wariness, excitement and jealousy that arises when these three come together: Tabu, Poppy and Kong.

As the series progresses, our heroes discover more about the island and the fabulous wildlife that inhabits the interior. Studying the native myths, Poppy’s mother believes the island was originally a huge meteor that fell thousands of years ago, capping an erupting volcano. The heat of the lava reacted with the strange extraterrestrial rock. The remarkable soil of the island possesses strange properties that has caused life to thrive and mutate, leading to the incredible flora and fauna that lives there now. She scoffs at Tabu’s belief that the island spirit watches over them – yet she can’t deny that in her expeditions to the interior in search of the immortality flower, she has had some pretty uncanny experiences.

And now the scene is set for a series of fast-paced fantasy-pulp adventures. Many seek the source of eternal youth – can our heroes protect their island paradise? Horangi suspects Tabu of breaking the sacred rules – can he avoid being branded a heretic? In the dark heart of the island, prehistoric monsters reign supreme – can Kong look after his human friends as their thirst for exploration takes them into danger? And when armed hunters come from the outside world to trap Kong – what can Tabu and Poppy do to save him?

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Fantasy and SF books

The book reviews in the last post proved more popular than the role-playing stuff that preceded it. I admit I'm surprised, but we live in an age when politicians and bloggers alike are buffeted by the forces of populism -- interesting times, as the Chinese say. So here are a few more reviews, this time all of genre books so you can see how picky I am. I'll save the best till last.

American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until NowAmerican Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until Now by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quite a curate's egg. Some of the stories are what I would expect of "the fantastic" - elusive, oblique, unsettling, breathtakingly fanciful, or all of the above. Joe Hill's "Pop Art", for example, in which the narrator remembers his inflatable childhood friend. That's a world in which people just are sometimes inflatable and Hill runs with the idea. But contrast that with Poppy Z Brite's "Pansu", which relentlessly expounds a feeble idea about exorcism; it might as well be one of Ross Rocklynne's problem-solving SF stories, only with made-up stuff in place of clever physics. Or Caitlin Kiernan's "The Long Hall on the Top Floor", which is hardly a story at all but more like a treatment for a formulaic TV series about a drunken, hip-but-bitter psychic investigator; Constantine lite. Or look at the way Jane Rice in "The Refugee" feels obliged to painstakingly lay out the crumbs of plot and evidence to coax us towards the denoument of a rather undistinguished werewolf story.

But then there are gems too. John Collier's "Evening Primose", about the shadow community living in a department store; Tennessee Williams's poignant, spectral "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio"; Truman Capote's inexplicably threatening "Miriam"; John Cheever's "Torch Song"; Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon Lover" (there's the twisty nightmarishness I wanted); Mary Rickert's disturbing and ambiguous examination of grief and guilt in "The Chambered Fruit"; Benjamin Percy's dislocated existential horror "Dial Tone" - these and others make the collection worthwhile.

A Maze of DeathA Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It shouldn't work, this. It gives every indication of being slapped together with no planning, the characters are opaquely written, the set-up is both contrived and confusing. Yet somehow Dick pulls a workable yarn out of the hat. Maybe that's because the experience of reading it throws you into the same state of fretful bafflement that the characters are experiencing. Or maybe it's simply because, when it comes to paranoid delusions, Dick knows whereof he writes. It's not great but worth reading to see what the brush of genius can do to transform a mess.

Second Foundation (Foundation, #3)Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is more fantasy than SF. A mutant with mind-controlling powers disrupts Asimov's rise-of-empire story. That's fun for a while, but Asimov can't think of a way out so he gives the entire Second Foundation the same powers, and they wave a mental wand and that's it. All sorted. As for what those powers are - we all had them once, apparently, but lost them with the development of language. Oh, Isaac, that's lazy.

Still, it's a good story with at least one compelling character in 14-year-old aspiring novelist Arcadia Darell, a prototype for feisty teen investigators.

There's one slip-up where Asimov puts us inside the head of a character who could not possibly be thinking what he tells us she is because it later turns out she's been on top of the whole situation all along. Isaac, that's careless; you were pantsing it, I suspect.

At the end, having enjoyed the ride, I still had to wonder why Hari Seldon didn't just put the psychologists (who are really kind of psycho-economists) and the physical scientists on the same planet. It would have saved a lot of confusion. That'll be why, then.

Quite a lot of typos in these editions, by the way. You can work out what was meant but it's irritating.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another real curate's egg. I liked the concept, and it takes some getting your head around. To summarize: because in consecutive lifetimes people you met in the previous lifetime remember that as their last lifetime too, it seems that the entire world must reset when every single ouroboran from the dawn of time to the end of the human race has completed one life. Which was kind of fun to think about.

This means that you can send messages forward as far as you like in one instantiation of the world, but you can only send a message back by one generation at a time. Nonetheless, our narrator gets a message that the end of the world is happening sooner than it used to. He soon twigs that it's because of a rogue ouroboran in his own lifetime (1919 to the early 21st century) who is meddling in the old Things That Man Was Not Meant etc.

Now here's the biggest flaw in the book. We are asked to accept that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, just as long as ouroborans do nothing to try and improve the human lot. Create antibiotics 50 years early? Why, you fool, there'll be a dotcom crisis in the 1960s and nuclear war before 2020.

[Spoilers here on in...]

There's nothing wrong with SF taking a reactionary view. What would paperback sales be like in Boko Haram territories if it couldn't do that? But the dramatic flaw here is that we are presented with this intriguing, unexplained phenomenon of reincarnation, and one of the characters is trying to build a magic mirror - sorry, quantum mirror - which might well tell him and us what lies behind it all. But he's the bad guy. We're supposed to root instead for the plodding narrator who is doggedly trying to stop him so that dotcom crises and humanitarian disasters can happen when they're supposed to as ordained by - whatever, whoever. Personally I think the story would have worked better if the narrator was trying to cause change and reveal truths rather than putting all the genies back in their bottles.

The author does well at evoking the sense of many different lives lived. Less so at the emotional journey. The narrator's relationship with his real and adoptive fathers interested me far more, but was much more sketchily covered, than his struggle to stop anything different or interesting from ever happening. At one point his nemesis marries the woman he himself loved a dozen lives earlier. The reaction s both too little and too much - "I crawled into the bushes and wept." Dude, it was like 800 years ago. I can pass old flames in the street without going nutso, and that's just a matter of decades.

But then, our hero is an eidetic. Or rather, to use their own terminology, a mnemonic. He remembers everything. Often these eidetics are troublemakers, because they take vaccines and gunpowder back to earlier times. But wait a mo', every message passed back down from the future must do that... Moving on.

The style is rather uncomfortably prosaic and stilted. An attempt to render how somebody born in 1919 would write? Perhaps, but some poetic licence would have made it more tolerable. The ending is a little rushed, the bad guy all but throwing himself onto the pyre. It had the smack of author fatigue to me; time to wrap up and work on something else.

Still, an interesting concept - even if it is never actually explored either emotionally or scientifically. Maybe that will be in the sequel, but 400 pages was quite enough for me.

(Editing anomalies: a "temporarily" that should have been "temporally" and a strange lapse into Chaucerian idiom with "nor in no life". Blame the publisher for those; authors have enough to do thinking this shit up.)

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story of a 13-year-old boy whose mother has cancer. As with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, who would drown this kitten? It's the sort of book publishers absolutely love doing, because they can't always judge literary quality but worthiness is obvious to all. "Brave, compassionate, beautiful..." say the cover quotes; they write themselves. It's the kind of thing that almost has me rooting for the tumour.

It's in the past tense, which makes it almost a collector's item among kids' books these days. The style is...

Well, the style. It is.

That is the style.

A bit like Dr Seuss? That's what I thought too. Okay, it is for kids, but I grew out of Dr Seuss by age 6 or so. After a hundred pages the shallowness of that screenplay-like prose really grates. But it is in the past tense, I give it points for that.

Some light spoilerishness now. The most interesting part to me was the main character's relationship with his tormentor at school. The denouement of that was thoroughly unsatisfying (the author's inspiration simply took an afternoon off) and the aftermath completely unrealistic. I don't think criminal cases involving bodily harm are left for school authorities to adjudicate, for example, nor is prosecution solely dependent on pressing charges.

The monster is okay, but it doesn't have much to do except tell a series of stories that feel like padding - probably because they are. The ending is all tell not show, but it's relentlessly worthy so librarians will love it.

A part of the proceeds from the book do go to charity. But you could always cut out the middleman.

Dark Satanic MillsDark Satanic Mills by Marcus Sedgwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only graphic novel in my reviews of 2013 (though not, of course, by any means the only comics work I've read this year) this is a quite unsettling approaching-apocalypse story with some of the DNA of Survivors, Quatermass IV and 1984 - along with much that is original and brilliant in its own right.

The White DarknessThe White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is beautifully written, has an intriguing premise (Captain Oates lives on as the imaginary friend of a 14-year-old girl) and convincingly rounded characters.

You can see there's a but coming, can't you? I found for the first quarter of the book that the story didn't really bite. That bit is like a long set-up that is all put across in wonderful prose, but it lacks the intrigue factor needed to make you keep on reading. It was only when the narrator gets to Antarctica (I'm not giving anything away here) and things start to go wrong that the novel becomes really compelling.

One problem, I decided, was that there is plenty in the set-up that the reader can see but the narrator cannot. This creates a disconnect between us and our protagonist. That's all very well when the narrator is somebody like Charles Pooter. We may not connect with Pooter or even respect him that much, but we do find him endearing. That's comedy. But in a dramatic tale like this, where the narrator is our sole point of contact with a story that is hopefully going to move us (and it does) it is potentially fatal to find that you're distanced from that narrator for a good chunk of the book.

So, overall I recommend this (and my wife btw would give it 5 stars) but you do need to be patient with the slow build-up.

The Battle Of The SunThe Battle Of The Sun by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The caveat first: it's a kids' book, so I'm not the intended audience. I'm trying to think back to what books I'd have read at that age. Robert Heinlein's juvenile novels (Red Planet, etc). Dracula. Mike Moorcock's Mars books. Very different.

It's full of inventive ideas and Ms Winterson is obviously enjoying herself, to such an extent that it often feels as if she's making it up as she goes along. That's okay, by the way, as long as you don't drop any plates. And she doesn't.

The style is lush and lyrical, but feels a little repetitive after a while. No doubt that's deliberate (it creates an incantatory feel) so is only a complaint from an adult reader's perspective.

Likewise the perfunctory characterization. It's like a fairytale, so there's no depth or complexity there. A character is brave, or devious, or ruthless, or honest, and motivations are: greed, love, fear. Lacking that, it reads like a role-playing game write-up in which characters are seen doing things but we never really go inside them. I'd have preferred fewer characters with more time given to them, but children now have different expectations from when I was reading Heinlein and Stoker.

Btw I only discovered halfway through that it's sort of a sequel to Ms Winterson's other kids' book, Tanglewreck. I'm not sure that matters - you can read this one on its own - but it was odd.

Riddley WalkerRiddley Walker by Russell Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now that everybody is in such a flappy fuss about Station Eleven (give it three years and you'll have to Google it) this seems like a good time to re-read possibly the greatest work combining narratology, theatrical performance, and post-apocalyptic future history. Hoban said he could never spell properly again after confabulating the narrator's language, but it was worth it.

Titus Groan (Gormenghast, #1)Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me more than 30 years to read this book. After originally abandoning it a few chapters in, I nearly gave up at the same point. There's a whole world and a lot of characters to introduce, and Peake wasn't writing for an audience of TV-weaned YA goldfish. He takes his time but suddenly it pays off. You really know these characters because he has put care into making them individuals. His prose is beautiful and he has the most vivid visual imagination of any author I've come across.

It is, in short, a masterpiece. Normally I reserve 5 stars for books that I feel affect me profoundly and permanently - that "change my life", as all great art should on some level. I regret not coming to Gormenghast a lot sooner. If I'd read it 32 years ago it would have stretched me to create more interesting fantasy worlds in my own books.

(Thanks incidentally to Marcus Sedgwick: it was his superb comparative review of Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings that sent me back to the book after so long. I feel I need to acknowledge that, having just trashed his latest book in another review. And one day maybe I'll read Lord of the Rings.)

Death Is a Lonely Business (Crumley Mysteries, #1)Death Is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A magic realist whodunit in which the young Bradbury is himself the protagonist. Only, being Bradbury, it's never as simple as that. The murderer seems to be more existential than physical, the familiar landscape of LA suddenly far more fantastical than Mordor. The one flaw is that Bradbury, as a writer who notoriously disdained plotting, allows an important character to slip out of the story while two others, introduced later and in whom we are consequently less invested, become more prominent than they really should. But imagine it as a sixtysomething author getting up and just improvising a prose-poem of dread, beauty, loneliness and the desire to connect with others and you can't help but applaud.

Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of TekumelEmpire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tekumel by M.A.R. Barker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read it more times than I could count and I've spent as much time in Professor Barker's imagination as on the planet Earth. EPT is the most perfect example of the proliferating story threads that Damien Walter describes as one of the chief joys of reading a roleplaying game ( I'm not religious, but if I was this would be my Bible.

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Friday 17 June 2016

Something for the weekend

Roleplaying and Ancient Greece don't seem to be particularly popular with the readers of this blog, if the number of comments is anything to go by. So here are a few books I've read recently that I think are worth recommending. I hope you'll see something you like:

Collected Stories of Isaac BabelCollected Stories of Isaac Babel by Isaac Babel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apologies to Dr Johnson, but it's been a very long time since any intelligent person could seriously assert that it's the job of writers to present the reader with a moral lesson. Even so, fiction lies. If you were an alien who only knew of human beings from reading their literature, you wouldn't recognize the species when you came across it. That's because even the best authors bake their own viewpoint into the story. Darkness At Noon or Bend Sinister or Dirty Snow -- in all of those books are people doing terrible things, but there's still the sense that the authors, while of course not commenting on the action, stand for civilization and the best of humanity. Even though (in fact, because) those books are full of the anger or disappointment of the civilized viewpoint, they perpetuate the idea that civilized man is a good creature who can sometimes be corrupted into "inhumanity".

But Babel presents a far less comfortable picture of mankind. He's writing many of these stories from the viewpoint of a Jewish intellectual serving as an officer in a Cossack regiment of the Red Army. That's not made up, either; extraordinary as it sounds, it was Babel's own military real-life experience. Unsentimentally he describes acts of generosity alongside shocking barbarity. And he doesn't pretend the latter is any less human or explicable than the former. If there is any act of Othering, it's Babel's own reflective view of himself and the civilized attitudes inculcated in him by his middle-class Jewish background. It's not that we can't see what Babel himself stands for - it comes as no surprise that Stalin had him murdered in the late '1930s - but his way of observing human behaviour holds up a horribly clear mirror. You'll come away from reading this feeling deeply disturbed.

The Red Cavalry tales take up most of the book, but there are also Runyonesque stories of Jewish gangsters in Odessa and semi-autobiographical accounts of Babel's early life, including some vivid up-close descriptions of antisemitic pogroms that make for very uneasy reading.

As a companion to reading Babel's work, I very highly recommend Professor David Thorburn's sublime lecture course entitled "Masterworks of Early 20th Century Literature", available in both audio and video versions. 

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The BookshopThe Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A middle-aged woman opens a bookshop in a small Suffolk town in the late 1950s, and in doing so inadvertently stirs up the battle lines of class conflict. It sounds like the basis for an Ealing comedy, and indeed there were several scenes that had me laughing out loud, but Ms Fitzgerald is a more thoughtful and subtle writer than that, and she does not invoke the comedic structure of the classic English novel for frivolous effect. There’s nothing cosy about what’s going on here. It may be a quiet English village, but even here privilege has the power to destroy lives. Ms Fitzgerald writes with such economy and beauty – often I had to pause and appreciate her prose – that you don’t immediately grasp the cold anger behind her urbanity, nor the consequences of an event till you are onto the next scene, like a stiletto sliding painlessly between the ribs to inflict a fatal wound that is not at first noticed. It all builds to a conclusion of tremendous ferocity and force. To say more would be to spoil the impact, but I will say that the final pages are among the most affecting in literature.

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The Tremor of ForgeryThe Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Graham Greene's favourite Highsmith novel, which he pointed out is about apprehension rather than fear. We follow Howard Ingham, an American writer visiting Tunisia as research for a film script. With exquisitely subtle but effective touches, the sense of dislocation grows. Ingham's alienation at being adrift in a foreign culture and a foreign language combine with a disquieting lack of communication from home.

The story explores guilt, in part, and in that sense reminded me of Woody Allen's "Crimes & Misdemeanors" as well as, obviously, Crime & Punishment. But the guilt here is a more disconnected, troubled, elusive emotion. Guilt at not feeling more guilty, even, as Ingham feels his moral bearings coming adrift. We eventually realize that the full story of what Ingham is blaming himself for is very probably quite different from what he imagines; but then, the blame is not the point. It cuts deeper into the whole question of fitting in, the existential dismay at whether right and wrong even mean anything, and the lies we tell not only others but ourselves.

If that all sounds rather too vague - it's not. This is a page-turner. Highsmith is a master of her craft, and she keeps turning the screw by tiny degrees towards an unbearable pitch of tension. It's not for me in the same class as Carol, but only just falls short.

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The Fade Out, Vol. 1: Act OneThe Fade Out, Vol. 1: Act One by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always clear the decks for a new Brubaker. This one has his usual Roeg-like imbricated timelines woven in an intriguing setting: Hollywood in the late '40s, glamourous and grubby at the same time, providing the classic Brubaker ingredients of lust, greed, secrets, lies - all heated to meltdown point by bad judgement on the part of the good guys and ruthlessness on the part of the baddies. That's insofar as anybody in an Ed Brubaker story is unequivocally "good" or "bad", of course.

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Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1)Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you only know Victorian humour from old Punch cartoons, you might be surprised at how modern this is. The prose is fresh, becomes quite lyrical in places, and JKJ is a natural raconteur. I laughed out loud throughout and was quite happy to spend a pleasant few hours in the company of three fellows and a dog who lived 126 years ago and yet feel as if they might be people you could meet tomorrow.

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Thursday 9 June 2016

Ways into Sparta

I’m not one of those who are scornful of the struggles that actors face in getting into character. It’s not as hard as coal mining? Can’t argue there, but it does drive some needles very deep into the actor’s psyche and sense of self-worth. Don’t discount emotional hardships, is all I’m saying.

Take Charles Laughton, driven almost to despair by his inability to get a handle on his part in I, Claudius. He finally solved it by playing a gramophone recording of Edward VIII’s abdication speech right before he’d walk on set. Similarly, though with a lot less of the hand-wringing, Sir Kenneth Branagh reportedly sought advice from Prince Charles before embarking on the role of Henry V.

The point is: you need to find a way in. Paul Mason and I used to talk about finding “the Englishness of Heian Japan” or whatever abstruse setting we had picked for our latest roleplaying campaign. It’s not that we really believe there is any “English” component there, and in particular not that we wanted to anglicize the setting in any way, just that you’re looking for the stepping stones that will get you started. Once you have that first step, you can start to build a mental model of your character within the exotic setting – until eventually it doesn’t feel exotic any more. You have passed through the stage of liminality and, now that you inhabit the setting, you can jettison those familiar analogies that got you started.

That’s the good way to do it. The bad way is to try to conform the setting to tropes you find familiar. Leaving aside the speedos, Frank Miller reduced Spartan culture to a bunch of violent libertarian nutters. That said, Miller reduces everything to violent libertarian nutters, so maybe we shouldn’t read much into it. As an approach to roleplaying in Sparta, it’s barren ground; it will lead you back into your own concerns and cultural views, not closer to the mind-set of a Spartan. The film adaptation of 300 likewise. The 1962 movie The Three Hundred Spartans was long mocked for being inauthentic, and lord knows I’m not recommending it, but arguably it’s still a lot more authentic than anything Zack Snyder has ever perpetrated.

You could look at Steven Pressfield’s book The Gates of Fire. Pressfield was a Marine, so he knows about soldiering. Trouble is, the type of soldiering he knows is likely very different from the experience of a hoplite in 480 BC. I’m not talking about drill or weaponry. Recruits into modern Western military forces tend to be rural or suburban and from a lower socioeconomic status than the general population. This leads to a specific style of training, a particular idiom of social interaction, which in British Army terms we might characterize as the “you ‘orrible little man” attitude. Or, going back to the US Marines, who can forget the Gunny’s welcoming speech from Full Metal Jacket?

If Pressfield were familiar with the Gurkhas, he’d know that if your soldiers come from a society that esteems military service you don’t need to treat them like dirtbags to get what you want. No sergeant or officer in the British Gurkha units ever needs to scream at a Gurkha soldier. Theirs is a martial culture. In such a culture, discipline flows from self-discipline. That is nearer (perhaps, for we can only surmise) to the Spartan way of thinking. All of these spartiate warriors are, after all, the aristocracy of their world. Martial values have been inculcated in them from childhood. They’re not unruly rednecks who you have to break down and rebuild into soldiers.

That suggests to me another analogy. You know the saying, apocryphally attributed to Wellington, about the battle of Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton. Those young Spartans, graduates of the agoge, are maybe not so different from the pupils of a tough Victorian or Edwardian public school. That system produced exactly the sort of chap who adhered to the values of his parents and grandparents, who would politely give up his seat to an elder, and who had the reckless courage to throw himself into battle at the head of his men armed with just a pistol and a stiff upper lip.

That’s one way into Sparta, anyway. I’ll reiterate that you’re not aiming to describe Sparta in terms of Rugby School or the Marine Corps or NRA anti-federalists or Baywatch extras. That would just be cultural chauvinism and it gets you nowhere in either acting or roleplaying. What you want is the key that opens a door in your own imagination so that you can construct a credible and internally consistent Sparta there.

And incidentally you might need several different keys. One of my players, seeing the map in the Sparta Sourcebook, said, “I never realized there were so many shrines and temples.” If you’re a Westerner who has travelled in the Orient, particularly somewhere like Taiwan, you won’t find that kind of society hard to comprehend. Even less so if you’re Taiwanese, of course.Another player was surprised that Ares wasn't much worshipped in Sparta, except as a cult among immature boys. The truth is that professional soldiers throughout history have rarely regarded war as anything admirable. A Spartan would tell you that it's not battle they worship, but victory.

Roleplaying in non-traditional settings doesn’t appeal to all tastes. It takes commitment, but when you carry it off it reaches a deeper place and yields more rewarding results than any campaign with Scottish dwarves and hippy elves ever can. So, if places like Tekumel or Sparta or Heian Japan are your bag, what tricks do you use for finding your way in?