Saturday, 20 August 2016

Everyone's a hero in their own story

Contains spoilers

One piece of advice I remember being given when I started writing seriously was to be scrupulous in ensuring your protagonist's actions are driven by character, but when it comes to your antagonist, anything goes.  Action derives from character; how your hero reacts to his predicament is determined by his strengths, weaknesses, foibles, knowledge, superstitions, physical abilities, history, and so forth.  What makes your lemming the one that walks away from the cliff edge?

The antagonist's job is to provide those predicaments; we don't stop to ask for consistency or justification; our focus is on the hero through whose eyes we'll follow the action.  If anything, an antagonist who acts with a cocktail of quasi-omniscience, semi-omnipotence, and unhinged irrationality makes for a pretty good baddie.

The truth is that you have a great deal more wriggle room with your antagonist; he is, after all, the one whose job it is to throw chairs in the way of the hero, but it helps enormously if your antagonist's actions also have some kind of twisted internal logic.  However, all too often, the baddie just seems to be there to give the hero something to push up or show off against, leading to such classics as:

"Do you really expect me to talk?"
"No, Mr Bond, I expect you to DIE."

If that was really Goldfinger's aim then would he really have constructed some homoerotic laser (or, in the book, circular saw)?  No, he would have just shot the bastard there and then, if not earlier.  The whole thing was really for the story's benefit first, and the character's second, if at all.

Let's compare and contrast one recent undeserving sci-if classic - The Hunger Games - with one recent unrecognised classic - Wool by Hugh Howey.  Both are set in a post-apocalyptic America, both with society splintered, albeit with very different levels of awareness of each other.  Both have strong heroines who butt up against the social order itself.

I'm not so interested here in contrasting Katniss with Juliette.  Rather, let's think about how much sense the initiatives engineered by society for keeping them in their place make.  Because, I think, each falls foul of the 'they wouldn't really do that' test, albeit at very different ends of the spectrum, which means that one, but only one, can be rescued via 'would they?'.

Firstly, Wool.  As a preliminary step prior to a preconceived holocaust of the mutually assured destruction-type, the American people take to fifty or so huge silos, buried one hundred and fifty storeys deep.  Over centuries memories of the world-that-was, the other silos even, are lost, except to the controlling elite.  Each silo becomes a self-contained universe with nobody beyond; anybody who says or thinks differently is sent to 'clean' the sensors that give a view of the dead surface in a suit with a deliberately shortened life.

Does it make sense?  Well, it's not the most obvious solution to sedition, but troublemakers need to be got rid of.  I was surprised, given that there are more twists in the story than in the strings of that kite you stuffed to the back of the loft last summer, that the air outside didn't turn out to be breathable, but that being the case, 'cleaning' offers a very visible way of demonstrating the toxicity of the world beyond the silo.

What makes less sense, however, is admitting that there's a world outside without making it an aim to ever leave the silo.  Why give people dreams if you're determined to quash them?  To quote James, If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor.  A nonsense, but a necessary nonsense in order to tell a great story.

I'll take it as read that you know how the Hunger Games works.  Again, the purpose of the Games is to humiliate the twelve remaining districts defeated by The Capitol.   Obviously there's a lot of gladiators in Ancient Rome going on here, both in terms of the political relationship between ruler and slave-states, and the resulting human blood sport.

So, your President Snow's predecessor.  Your blood's up and you want a way to keep your defeated territories under the cosh and on their knees.  Do you invent The Hunger Games?

No.  At least, not as described.

The very last thing you would do is allow resistance to centre on any martyr or hero-figure.  So, forget all those parades and interviews and fancy frocks.  You want to dehumanise, not create a cult of personality.  Remind them that the victor is of a different standing - think of the British in India, or America's relationship with its Native Americans.  A single man - Ghandi - had a lot to do with the ending of the Raj.  When people bay for blood it must be the blood of animals, or at least a lower caste of humans; under no circumstance must they think there but for the grace of god...

As for selecting children, no.  Not out of squeamishness, but because it makes you look weak.  Spartacus was made an example of because he was the strongest the slaves could muster, but still not strong enough for the might of Rome.  That was the message.

A lottery?  No.  Give the districts the pain of selecting their own tributes.  Make them offer up their best, with punishments for the districts with the weakest representatives.  Make the comfort, if not survival, of the district dependent on the Games.  Make the districts themselves snuff out any thoughts of resistance.

If you are going to have a lottery, what about the substitution rule?  Ludicrous.  Districts will either select the best (unlikely in reality given the odds of winning are slight and there doesn't seem to be anything in it for the district itself) or, more probably, some cripple whose family have been persuaded to sacrifice for better rations.  So you're faced with the prospect of the games resembling Todd Hayne's Freaks.  Not pretty.

Getting more food for having more entries in the lottery?  Hello?  The aim is to keep them enfeebled.  If everybody puts in for more food then the odds don't really change.  Ultimately all you've done is give aid and succour to people you're trying to quash and you still get two tributes per district.  Smart.  Not.

The Hunger Games also fails in large part to a question of scale.  Wool's conceit may be nonsensical, but it's nonsensical in a way that chimes with our experience of bureaucracy.  It's the sort of thing governments do.  The Hunger Games is so ill-conceived and on a society-defining scale too, that it topples over on the weight of it's own idiocy.  It is also actually self-defeating, in danger of creating the martyr figure that will bring about the revolution.

Much more seriously, in Wool, once you accept the premise, all the characters act  more consistently and believably and, well... in character than in The Hunger Games.  The Hunger Games exist as an irritant, like pre-holiday jabs.  Nobody suggests rebelling in the face of such evil.  Katniss and the other tributes act throughout as though there's a danger of being knocked out of an inter-schools hockey tournament, not of imminent bloody death.

Katniss is written as an everywoman.  She's us, the character we can empathetically drop into for the ride; so you can't argue the Games are so ingrained in her society they are simply blindly accepted, because we the reader can't accept them so easily.  We can't accept them at face value, so neither should our heroine.

The irritation is that there is a good story trying to get out of The Hunger Games; it's eminently fixable.  Firstly, learn from Spartacus.  Make Katniss the rebel, the troublemaker who needs to be dealt with - her hunting trips beyond the wire give ample reason in a world where people are subjugated through lack of food.  Have her fight against depersonalisation as she becomes a gladiator for others' entertainment.  Put her under duress - most of her actions and decisions actually make more sense - sorry, delete 'more' - if she had to fight to avoid bad things happening to the people she loves.  And don't change the ending - winning, but on her terms.

Oh, and maybe not make the standard of writing that of a hack writer's movie novelisation.

I may even write it myself.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Doctor Who Experience

Unfortunately not involving Malcolm Tucker on guitar with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass.  Playing The Wind Cries Missy, perhaps…

Rather, The Doctor Who Experience is an interactive tourist attraction and museum (many would separate those two concepts but, being a nerd, I don’t see them as mutually exclusive) in Cardiff Bay.

Approaching it, the hanger-like building is shaped like something the architects pulled out of the bin with a deadline looming.  Not unlike the Heart of Gold from Hitchhiker’s Guide; a running shoe for clubfeet.

With a quarter of an hour or so to kill before the timed entrance on our pre-booked tickets we walk straight into the cafĂ©.  And straight out again.  If I want coffee in a sauna I’d, well, have coffee in a sauna.  So we head around the corner to the ‘World of Boats’ where we have lattes made with UHT milk.  Better view, worse drinks.  You choose; only after millennia of evolution can we cope with such first-world dilemmas.

One positive of the Experience is that only thirty-five may enter every quarter hour.  This is the size of each party that goes through the ‘Experience’.  Which means that you’re never craning over somebody’s shoulder in the museum.

They ask everybody not to say anything about the interactive bit, so I won’t.  But suffice to say that it’s all a bit cheesy, but bearable if you act like a twelve year old, shaky-shaky, flashy-flashy and pointy-pointy through 3D glasses, all delivered with enthusiasm set to medium.

I don’t think I’ve broken any embargos there.

Once you’re experienced, you get spat out into the museum bit.  About which I can say more.  For example, I can tell you that you can dwell, and take photos.

The museum begins, unsurprisingly, in 1963 with newspaper headlines announcing the Kennedy assassination and a display on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  This includes a Stuart Maconie’s documentary about queen of all things that sound like the Aphex Twin before the Aphex Twin was a gleam in Mr Aphex Snr’s eye, Delia Derbyshire.

We would have lingered to watch the whole documentary but for two things: firstly, it wasn’t really set up for watching in its entirety, no seats to encourage you to linger awhile (it’s only ten minutes, but we didn’t realize this at the time); secondly, we expected there’d be more of the same, more interviews on the making-of and other diversions.  But from there on in the museum becomes little more than a collection of sets, props and costumes.

On the lower level there are a couple of Tardis (is that the plural?), a K9, and a green screen where you can be exploited for cash.  On the upper level, mainly costumes, mainly from the modern era, but also a smattering from the old.  An interactive learn-to-walk-like-a-monster thing that occupied the kids for five minutes.  But no clips.  With half a century of archive you’d think we’d get to see some old footage.  But no.  I suspect it’s a question of rights (did I see a BBC logo anywhere other than in old photos?  Whose museum is this?).  Which may also explain why Peter Cushing has been airbrushed completely out of this version of Whovian history.

But here’s the thing, somewhere on the stairs between levels, between Bessie at the bottom and Cybermen suits above, a conceit kicks in.  And this conceit is that Doctor Who is real.  The signage is all about when and where the Doctor encountered this foe or that, as if this were some offshoot of the Imperial War Museum.  There are a number of Daleks with explanation of when and where they fit into the story, but no acknowledgement that one arm ends in a sink plunger.

Unlike, say, the Harry Potter-themed Warner Brothers Studio Tour, which knows that the whole thing is a fiction and balances the making-of with the magic (pun intended) of the story.  With Doctor Who, unless you’re twelve or into cos-play, the insistence that we suspend our disbelief for a museum as we would for a tale gets to be ever so slightly very embarrassingly silly.

It also means that, if they don’t have a prop or costume (which, to be fair, are credited with having been worn by actors and actresses), there’s very little acknowledgement of, say, the Doctor’s assistants.  Yes, there’s a police-procedural-type board with photos, but I would have liked to see a complete list of characters and actors and the years they appeared.  More of an adult overview and less an adolescent showing off his collection.

And then it’s all over very quickly and you’re exiting through the giftshop, as is traditional.

One last nugget, and that is that the translation into Welsh of ‘Half-Faced Man’s balloon’ is covered in one word.  When I see this I feel a wave of paranoia advance.  What does this say about the ancient Welsh language, their culture, their shared history?  Is a half-faced man nothing out of the ordinary in the valleys?  But I soon realise that it was only the word ‘balloon’ that they had translated.  As if summing up the overall approach of only dealing with half the issue, the easy half, the playful, pretend half.  The half that raises the fewest tricky issues…