Friday, 23 March 2018

Victorian Dad

As regular readers will be aware, my interpretation of my own rules is so fast and loose that I'm happy to jump from the premise that science fiction encompasses stories, any story, set in the future, to include any idea about how the present will transmute into the time yet to pass.

From there, it's a short jump to musing on how the past has become the present, as how else do we learn what direction we're heading in?  And this is all in the context of my rejection of the teleological approach to history, the idea that we're progressing towards something or someplace.  Rather, I firmly hold that we're running around in circles, repeating ourselves, learning from our mistakes and, to quote my fellow Torquinian, Peter Cook, repeating them exactly.

Such as the Pilgrim Fathers being proto-Taliban, too puritan to live in England, therefore they had to find a big empty (more or less) space to be narrow-minded and bigoted in.  Or Isis' destruction of Palmyra?  Henry VIII's Reformation of the Church just coming around again.  We just don't have much of a record of all the iconography and art that his soldiers burnt and broke, just a countryside littered with the broken remains of monasteries like bleached whale skeletons washed up on the beach.

If we're going anywhere, it's with a drunk's walk at best, stumbling on sights that look all too familiar because we've been here before.

So, today's sermon is about Victorian parenting.

When I had kids I imagined a house of footsteps, laughter, shouting, loud music.  Okay, with me in the background yelling for quiet, with the same hope Cnut must have felt standing on the shingle.  Instead, in the early stages of the twenty-first century, I have a house of silence.  Like a library or a monastery.  Except with less reading or illuminating of manuscripts.  Instead, pixelated footballers, racing drivers or gunmen are being manipulated, or videos of sharks are being watched.  All with headphones over teenage ears.

Children should be seen and not heard, the saying goes.  I don't think this is what was intended.

If they ever picked up a book and stumbled across a Victorian reference to children being sent to their rooms, they'd be mystified.  That's exactly where they gravitate to.  In a world of central heating and wifi, they can't compute the very idea that bedrooms were cold and lonely spaces, away from the hearth and welcome hubbub of family life.  We all die alone, the cliche goes; I seem to be watching a social experiment that suggests we all wish to live alone as well.

We went to visit my father-in-law in hospital yesterday; I noticed the occupant on the next bed and his visitor, young marrieds, whether literally or figuratively, lay and sat, respectively, in silence, staring at their screens.  That would have been dystopian sci-fi ten years ago; now it's just everyday.

And in fifty years?  Don't be surprised if we're all living in individual pods in tower blocks, a beehive writ large, in-eye VR technology giving us the illusion of space or a sea view, as well as all the information, entertainment and networking we demand.  Action-at-a-distance (A3D) technology will enable us to do any job from the comfort of own pod, a robotic avatar reproducing the movements of our hands exactly, whether polishing a diamond or signing a contract.  Drones will bring us food; 3D printers will provide our shoes and clothes.

Maybe the only hope for the planet is that we forget to come together to procreate.


Friday, 9 March 2018

Bookends to a car journey

Yesterday, I spent seven and a half hours out of ten and a half driving, on a round trip that should have taken five.  On the outward leg, I listened to a podcast of Kermode and Mayo's Film Review covering Star Wars: The Last Jedi (yes, as usual, I'll get to the their Christmas special around Easter).  On the way back I caught, amongst many other things, the first half of the new Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase.

I think the former may go some way to explain my views of the latter.

You see, I have history with Hitchhikers', having played Arthur Dent in a school drama production some 31 years ago this month.  My first writing - well, 'with additional material by' - credit, as well.  It was very much in the ether during my youth, the original fits playing incongruously on the kitchen radio whilst my mother cooked lunch.  I read the first books when I was eleven, twelve, something like that, around when the TV series aired.  Basically, I was at that impressionable age when fads become obsessions, and Hitchhikers' could have been custom made for my academic, wordy, somewhat gauche former self.

And, vitally, I had somebody's dressing-gown tails to hang on to.  Arthur Dent's.  It's not just that there's a facet on me that's very Arthur: confused and pompous middle management, writing complaining letters to local newspapers.  It's that he's the classic everyman character, giving us our way into the fictional world, our bridge.  All of Adams' bizarre flights of fancy can be packaged and sold to us because Arthur has to take them at face value.  And, for the purposes of story, we are Arthur.

That's why Harry Potter works so wonderfully, but Urusla LeGuinn is somewhat more obtuse - sorry, where's my way into Earthsea?  It's why the Doctor has companions, not just to have somebody to talk to but for us to relate to.  It's why, contrary to what I was originally taught, the most interesting character is not necessarily always the hero of your story.

But that was all then.  Now?  Perhaps I'm jaded with age, but I found the new Hitchhikers' a mess of smart-cum-silly ideas, ridiculousness and daft names without any kind of framework.  Yes, it's not fair judging on half an episode (if only pedestrians playing with the traffic had closed the Brynglas Tunnels in both directions I may have caught all of it), but god knows I know that editors reading my stuff won't turn the first digital page over unless I give them reason to do so.  But I couldn't tell whose story it was, and if story is journey, where they needed to go.

I think it may have been John Cleese (and, remember, Douglas Adams was in the Python's circle) who said British comedy is silly things done straight, American is straight things done silly.  The original Hitchhiker's fits that mould: there's a very intelligent story structure behind it, which grounds the space-Dada.  The new stuff: silly done silly.  A natural clown only in the sense that its nose is red and bulbous before it sits in front of the make-up mirror.

(There's a separate but related note, on stories being key journeys that characters take only once; resurrect a character for a sequel and there's a feeling of artificiality, that he's completed this before.  The clear exception is police procedurals: cops keep being thrown problems in the real world, hence a constant grind of story doesn't ring false).

And this is what Kermode had said earlier that day that rang so true about Hitchhikers' in his review of The Last Jedi.  That character is story.  That protagonists do things, make the decisions which decree the way the story arcs, dependent on their characters.  Put well-defined characters in a situation and story will play out as a natural consequence.  Put simply, no other narrative will be possible: the writer is simply reporting what occurs, without losing sight of his cast as they race ahead.

I'm not sure I fully sign up to The Last Jedi being a masterpiece or for it being a glowing example of story progressing within the tight constraints of characters' beliefs, abilities and preferences.  But I think it hits the nail on the head of why I won't be seeking out the second half of that first episode of the Hexagonal Phase.