Saturday, 16 May 2020


Contains spoilers

I thought I'd scatter a few thoughts about the wrapping up of Homeland.

No, it's not science fiction.  However, the uses and abuses of technology has played a role in the storylines, not least in season 8, and I wanted to say a few things on that particular issue that I haven't seen said on the interweb (although I haven't looked that hard).  Plus, I have some issues with story, and story is as central to science fiction as any other genre.  And I partly want to blog this because I've seen nothing but (qualified) praise for season 8 and, well... I'm a bit more emperor's new clothes about the whole thing.

For those of you who neither know nor care, but are still reading (why? why??) a helicopter, with the presidents of both America and Afghanistan on board, crashes in Taliban bandit country.  All are killed.  The hawkish US vice-president, now sworn in as president, accepts the assumption that it has been shot down and escalates military tensions, which his predecessor was working to wind down.  However, the aircraft's black box flight recorder - which becomes the macguffin - could prove it an accident if it hadn't fallen into the hands of the Russians who won't play nicely.  America is at the point of going to war on the basis of false facts.  All very 'weapons of mass destruction'.

For me, season 8 ties its own shoelaces together and face-plants at the point Carrie gets her hands on the flight recorder.  And not just for all the reasons already out there on the web - she could have just emailed it! how did she have the right cable?! how come broadband in rural Pakistan is better than in the UK!!! - but for the simple reason that, once she’s played it through her laptop, wouldn’t there be some saved file deep in a cache on her hard drive?  How many files have I thought I've lost only for there to be some digital shadow left behind?

Maybe Yevgeny took Carrie's laptop?  Not sure, can't remember.  But I sure as hell remember that the next scene is Carrie walking through the Pakistani town with her bag.  Afterwards, she doesn't refer to her laptop once.  Not to say she’s lost it, not to ask if the audio file is accessible, not to check if Yevgeny accessed it.  If a Russian spy had an American spy's laptop - particularly one that's just made a $1m online payment - they sure as hell wouldn't give it back.  But Carrie doesn't bleat about, or report it.  Why?  Because she's a fictional character written by writers who briefly forgot what that character would do there and then, because it didn't help the story (cf her love of jazz).  She either still has it and has questions to ask, or has lost it and lets people know.

Me, if I was script-doctoring this, would drop in a line, a question and answer, to explain why there's no automatically saved back-up, why the laptop is of no interest to the Russians.  Maybe she suggests it herself and is knocked back.  Or, let her, say, pick it up in the shop where she acquires the flight recorder (okay, doesn't solve the online payment bit, but you only get so much analysis for free). 

This is where I feel a special privilege being a science fiction writer.  We get to make all of this shit up.  Yes, internal consistency is a major consideration, but we can forget about external consistency, i.e. making events fit with the logic and constraints of the real world.  (And my sympathies to writers of historical fiction, who have to achieve both internal consistency, and external consistency with a world that's no longer there.)  So, if I don't want my data device to save its doings, I just say so; there’s nobody to say, ah, but it would, or even wouldn’t it normally...

I may, of course, be wrong about the cached back-up, in which case I play my next card.  And on this card is drawn a picture of a small child banging a jigsaw piece in with a balled fist, shouting it fits! it fits!!

You see, Homeland tries to have its macguffin-flavoured cake and eat it.  Typically, the characters would be chasing the flight recorder not knowing what it proves (and they do, initially).  But, unusually, all of us - characters and audience - are let in on the secret.  And, at that point, they play a three card monte on us.  It's done with panache by perpetrators of the highest class, so don't feel a mug for being conned.

Firstly, we have the ridiculous situation where Carrie gets to listen to the recording but not retain the device.  To be honest, I can live with this - if Homeland were realistic, it would be hours of people searching emails for key words, listening to taped phone calls, steaming open envelopes.  Drama needs, er, moments of drama.  But then the drama plays out as a search for confirmation of what they already know, that's never as dramatic as searching for something that still has to reveal itself.  It's like a horror movie that shows  the monster up front.

But, more importantly, remember what we've learnt about stakes, class?  They know what the Russians know, they know what could be revealled.  In the world of intelligence, isn't that all ever so slightly lame?  I'm really unconvinced the stakes here were what everybody said they were.  Would the CIA’s best intelligence asset get burnt for confirmation of what they already know?  Only if finding out what was on that recording would save the world would you sacrifice Anna Pomerantseva.

Saul believes Carrie, and only works on the (bizarre) basis that her
testimony wouldn’t be believed by others.  Really?  The way it should have played from there is for Carrie not to be believed or trusted by anybody, Saul included, and to have to go over to the dark side as the very, very last resort.  Or for the president to be told, but to say I'm going to nuke Pakistan unless I have the actual thing on my desk, and then everybody has to work against presidential orders.

From this point on I stopped buying how the characters acted and reacted.  The story construction seemed designed to get to a particular point: Carrie being asked to kill Saul.  It fits!  It fits!!  I can imagine the writers’ room now.  Wouldn’t it be good if...  But how do we get there?  Well, you can’t get there from here, at least not with your dignity intact.

Contrived, but a fun ride.  There are worse things to have on your headstone.

The show ends with us meant to believe that Carrie is Saul’s new asset in Moscow.  Like hell.  More chance of her sending misinformation.  But I want to end these thoughts on an up note.  This is, actually, a stroke of genius by the makers, the entertainment version of Stockholm Syndrome.  We’ve been held captive by Claire Danes’ performance for so long that we’ve forgotten how nasty she really is.  We believe her - believe in her - because it’s human to do so.

A question I’m sometimes asked as a writer is how to make a compelling protagonist.  I always say give them agency - give them an objective, even if it’s evil, and we can’t help but be fascinated whether they get there.  But Homeland has made me think there’s something else in the mix: proximity.  Stay with a character for 96 episodes and you can’t help but root for her.  Even if she reveals herself in the final analysis to be a repellent human being, you still want to, have to, believe.

Friday, 1 May 2020

One billion people! (say it in a Dr Evil voice, please)

I read an interesting headline the other day.

Not the article.  That would make me dangerously well-informed, and we know that's not how the Internet works.

It said that a billion people may catch Covid-19.  That's round about one-eighth of the population of this little blue marble.  That's a lot.  But my first thought was why stop there?

I mean, surely the more newsworthy story would be, 'Seven Billion Won't Catch Coronavirus'.  It's proving to be a pernicious little sod.  If it gets a billion, that sounds like an unstoppable momentum to me.  The rest of us won't be so much as a waffer thin mint to it as it gorges its way through us.  Like chickenpox, but with significantly superior firepower.  T-Rexpox, perhaps?

My understanding of the process is that, barring a vaccine, which isn't a given, you either contain it so it dies out, or the number of people who have had it and have built up resistance grows, meaning that remaining carriers get progressively worse at finding viral virgins to infect.  Quarantine or herd immunity.

The former strikes me as an impossible ask given how many cats are out of bags.  As for the latter... as an interconnected, global species the herd is a lot bigger than a billion.  I think you're talking pretty much the whole farm, all eight and nine noughts of us.  Okay, so as herd immunity builds up it becomes easier to contain an outbreak within a population that has built up resistance, but even so... a billion appears light to me.

There's lots of talk of finding a new normal after this is all over.  My fear is that new normal will be an old normal reborn.  That death is very much an everyday part of life.  And we'll look back on the last century or so as being a weird Elysian time, to life expectancy and health what the Renaissance was to art.

It's only in the last few generations (and particularly in the white, middle-class, Western world, to boot) that we have expected freedom from death.  I don't mean being so naive that we think we're immortal, but at least viewing the years from toddlerhood to retirement as being, for most practical purposes, free of natural death.  As if we have a right to life in a very literal sense, that the odds of dying without some human agency in the process can be disregarded on a day-to-day basis. 

In my family, I think pretty much every generation before mine has lost children at birth.  Wind the clock back further and cholera, diphtheria, influenza and the rest of them were standard issue disrupters.  Don't make plans, it may never happen.  Our teleological thinking lulls us into a belief that progress has been about taking a fixed list of problems and crossing them off, one by one.  With smallpox gone and HIV managed, it's as if we can kick our shoes off and relax at the beach with a cold one.  You don't have to look far on the Internet to find people asking whether they can sue doctors, not for negligence or malpractice, but because things simply didn't turn out as they wanted.  That's the sort of bizarre mindset we've ended up with. 

And then along comes SARS-CoV-19, and we're reminded that, in Humanity versus Nature, it isn't just one side that can develop new weapons.  Our blitzkrieg on all things natural has gone pretty well up to now.  We thought we had it subjugated.  We're Adolf on the French coast gazing at the white cliffs of Dover in the haze.  But plucky little Nature has found a way to fight back, for the freedom of the many (species) against the one.

And, yes, I did just paint Mankind as the bad guys.