Thursday 16 November 2017

Cezanne or Picasso?

2084 by Robert Bagnall, now available from, or direct from Double Dragon, for your enjoyment.

I recently took in an episode of Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant Revisionist Histories podcast called Hallelujah.  It's on the subject of why genius takes time.  Or, sometimes, it doesn't.

He contrasts the slap-it-together, finished by lunchtime ethic of Picasso or Bob Dylan with the drafting and re-drafting of a Cezanne or Leonard Cohen, where works are never finished, merely abandoned needing to be monetized.  Sometimes it even takes another person to pick up what you thought had been taken as far as it could be to reveal the gold beneath the tarnish, just as Jeff Buckley, John Cale and a host of others did with Cohen's Hallelujah.  Or, like Elvis Costello reworking Deportee, it takes an older you revisiting what the younger you had declared as good as it was ever going to get.

Why mention this?

Well, I see myself as a Cezanne.  I have stories on my spreadsheet which were first drafted in the last century, western crime capers rewritten for the edge of space; flash pieces that have grown beyond their original intentions; longer pieces that have been boiled down to not much more than a flash.  I'm a honer, an editor, a re-writer.

So, you'll understand that it is with a tad of bemusement that I look back on the year so far and realise that my two most recent sales are both for pieces freshly drafted, with virtually no rewrites, and certainly no opportunity to take a mental step back.  Picassos.  Bob Dylans.  Not Cezannes.

One, I've already mentioned: 'They Have Been to a Great Feats of Languages and Stol'n the Scraps' in Daily Science Fiction.  As I put in the author comments:

Some stories have a difficult gestation, the product of long walks and hot baths, always just out of reach, more stared at than written over the course of weeks or months, until they emerge into the light, never quite as good as that elusive first idea that you loved, now lost sight of.

This story wasn’t like that.

Its genesis can be found in a jokey posting on my blog suggesting that Shakespeare’s famous lack of books could be explained away if he was actually a time traveller, and challenging somebody to take the idea and run with it.  Suspecting nobody would, I picked up the gage that I myself had thrown, as Shakespeare would have said.  The tale was written on a single damp spring morning and polished over a latte after lunch.

I know many of you would like to think we suffer for our art.  Not this time.  Sorry.

Well, added to that I can let you know that my story 'Storm Warning' will be appearing in Azure Keep's Tales of Ruma sometime early next year.

Which is nice.  Even if it leaves me not really sure what kind of artist I am.

(Who said 'piss'?  Come on, own up, who was it...)

Thursday 2 November 2017

More human than human

2084 by Robert Bagnall, now available from, or direct from Double Dragon, for your enjoyment.

Contains spoilers

No, this isn't going to be a review of Blade Runner 2049.  I'm sure there are enough of them out there, although I've been avoiding them in order to watch the film unencumbered.

Instead I wanted to dwell on world-building and the Blade Runner universe, a world that I've always been a sucker for, even if the story itself made only passing sense - like, why does Leon need a Voight-Kampff Test when they have photo id?  Having said that, some have tried to fill such plot holes, with varying degrees of success and retention of dignity.

Actually, in story terms, the original is quite a simple one: a truncated act one which sets up the storyverse and gives Deckard his challenge: to air four replicants; act two: hunting down the easy ones; act three: the operatic set piece of killing the most cockroach-like of them.  Yes, there's an interweaving subplot with Rachael but, essentially, that's it.

But that world... a triumph of set design and paranoia, mostly delivered on a tiny corner of the Warner's backlot.

Blade Runner 2049 extends and expands the vision.  The rain has turned to snow, the advertising blimps to free-wheeling holograms, and there still appears to be no sense of leadership or government, just rules and regulations.

And the blade runners are now unashamedly skin-jobs.

This surprised me: I'd have thought Denis Villeneuve would have kept us guessing on that front but, instead, wrong-foots us with the revelation up front.  Yes, the bait that maybe, perhaps, K is different from the rest is dangled before us before being snatched away.  And - maybe I misunderstood, because it doesn't seem to have put this debate to bed - isn't it confirmed that Deckard is a replicant, because he was "engineered to fall in love with Rachael" or somesuch?  (Though why they needed a ruse so contrived to create life from artificiality is beyond me).

But, anyway.  In the opening, K sends up his targa top-cum-drone camera to photograph the surroundings of the farm where he encounters the film's first replicant wrong un' for later review.

And, this got me thinking when we (soon after) found out that K is a skin-job himself: why?

I'm a fan of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (not that I'm not a fan of the remainder of the trilogy; I just haven't read them).  Leckie's world-building game-changer is that the ship and the semi-catatonic, semi-mesmerised slave-cum-troops it carries are mentally as one.  With the ship destroyed and troops decimated, one survivor keeps that mental thread, that continuum of awareness alive.

K is a replicant.  Engineered.  Surely it wouldn't be that much as a technological leap to give him a live camera feed?  Leckie's ship sees everything its cadre of soldiers sees.  This is the Robocop of his time: less armour, more moody looks.

But, instead, all the technological innovation appears to have gone into making him human, but with skin you can peel and glue back on.  I'm not sure whether K feels physical pain; but the mental pain is there for all to see.  Bottom line: in 2049 they seem to have perfected synthetic emotions before Bluetooth.  Given everything else they've achieved - and I'm looking forward to the hundred-foot naked dancing girls - you'd think that'd be easy.

There's an element of wanting your cake and eating it, wilfully obscuring the issue with smoke and mirrors to make it all look more philosophical than it is.  What are replicants, anyway?  Are they robots or genetically engineered humans?  The story wants them to be one at some points, and the other at other times.  All the morgue scenes would suggest the latter, although that wouldn't make the issues any the less - just think of GMOs and the controversy they stir up, despite looking just like 'normal' vegetables and grains.

Take this line from the wikipedia page on replicants: "Although the press kit for the film explicitly defines a replicant as "A genetically engineered creature composed entirely of organic substance", the physical make-up of the replicants themselves is not clear. In the films’s preamble, it is noted that replicants are said to be the result of "advanced robot evolution.”". 

Just about sums it up, cake eaten, but still there on the plate.

Or, maybe, the point is that there is a level of engineering beyond which the distinctions between robot and genetically engineered human become pointless and illusory.  Either route involves manufacture and artificiality, its just a case of the size and nature of your building blocks.

But, most strikingly, it's 2049, and they still haven't invented a better bra fastener.