Gravity

Film Review GravityI see so many films and read so many books that don’t really touch me and leave no lasting trace at all, but this film really got into me.  For a long time afterwards, I kept coming back to it, turning it over in my mind.  (There’s a clip here if you didn’t see it.)

It’s a pretty rare thing, actually: a satisfying work of art.

But what was so good about it?   The effects of course are wonderful, and space is of course the obvious subject matter for a 3D film, but the plot is almost laughably simple, and, in spite of the realism of those effects, it does require you to accept some fairly chunky implausibilities.   So what made this film so special?

I think the secret lay in what in itself was a very simple and commonplace story-telling move.  Quite early on it’s established the main, and soon to be sole, protagonist, played by Sandra Bullock, has suffered a devastating loss: her own child, dead at the age of four in a freak playground accident.   This isn’t laboured particularly, but the events of the movie provide such a perfect parallel with that experience that it doesn’t have to be.  A shower of debris that no one could have expected suddenly arrives, and the space shuttle which up to now has been an island of air and warmth becomes as empty and barren as the void outside.  The only hope lies in abandoning it altogether and venturing out across the emptiness.

3D movies achieve the illusion of depth by presenting the same scene from two slightly different angles, and story-telling works like that as well.   You need more than one angle if the thing is to come alive.   Here, the story in front of us and its amazing imagery combine with the story of the woman’s past to create a really wonderful meditation on the precariousness of existence.

The Darwinian evolution of true stories

I very much enjoyed the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man.  It’s about a Detroit singer-songwriter called called Sixto Rodriguez who records a couple of albums which fail to sell, and moves onto other things, completely unaware that within a strange cultural bubble on another continent, young white liberalish apartheid-era South Africans have come to regard him as an iconic musical figure.

Within that bubble everyone has his records, everyone plays his music at parties, everyone knows his name, and, just as he is unaware of them, they themselves are unaware that their enthusiasm is a purely local thing and assume that he is up there with Bob Dylan, James Taylor or Joni Mitchell.   As to why he only made two records, his South African fans  believe that he committed suicide in a very spectacular way, in front of a concert audience.

Assuming it’s true that he really had no idea of his South African following, Rodriguez must have been badly ripped off.   I sometimes find out that my stories have been translated and printed without my permission in various small magazines, and that’s annoying, but I’d be very angry indeed if I discovered that my actual books were selling well in a country where I didn’t even know they’d been published.   Rodriguez, however, came over as untroubled by this side of things and seemed unwilling to express any regret at all about the life that he’d actually lived, not as a famous musician but a worker in the construction industry.

When finally put in touch with his South African fans, he was clearly pleased to have large audiences filling up concert halls for him across South Africa, but what came over was pleasure that people wanted to listen to him, rather than excitement at stardom and fame.   As a writer I know that need to be heard – I think it’s quite distinct from the  desire to be lauded – and I found this part of the film extremely moving.

But I found it interesting too to think about what this movie told us, partly intentionally and partly not, about how ‘true stories’ are made.   One ‘true story’, the lurid story about Rodrigues’ on-stage suicide, was clearly completely false – the man is alive to this day – but why did it gain currency in the first place?  A Darwinian process must surely occur in which many rumours are generated and a few take root and become accepted as true when they meet some kind of need – in this case a need to resolve a puzzle – rather as some new variant of finch might find itself occupying some as-yet unfilled niche.

The other ‘true story’ is the film itself.  I see (from Wikipedia, which will probably prevent  a story quite like this from ever happening again) that some quite important facts were missed out of it.  Rodriguez was actually also popular in Australia and he did two tours of the country in 1979 and 1981.  I can see why this wasn’t included.  Something must be left out in order to make a 2 hour movie out of a life, and to fit that life into some more universal story (in this case the one where we imagine we are alone and then find we are loved and cared about) which a movie audience will enjoy and relate to.

But justifiable though it may be, its ommission represents another manifestation of the same Darwinian process whereby stories are shaped and changed to meet the needs of their listeners and their tellers.

Dis wata de col col

A while ago on the radio I heard a speech by the President of Sierra Leone, announcing the end of civil war.  He began the speech in English:

‘The war is over!’

And then he said the same thing in Krio, the English-based creole which is the country’s lingua franca.

‘Wah done gone!’*

Every part of the English-speaking world has its own version of English, but in most cases these haven’t  diverged from one another so much as to become actual separate languages.   On the contrary, the prestige and utility of Standard English, with its stabilised grammar and spelling, mean that the various regional versions of the language tend to converge towards the standard form rather than flow away from it.   This has happened with the regional dialects of England, and it may well happen in Sierra Leone too.  A standardised official language is like a deep channel dug through a river delta where the waters have broken up into many small streams.

But if the channel silts up, or access to it is lost, then new streams form.  Under the Romans, Latin was a deep channel across a wide swathe of Europe, in many places completely replacing the indigenous languages.  But after the empire broke up, so did the language, splintering into countless Romance tongues, a few which became new national languages.

As the world is at the moment, I guess this sort of divergence is only likely to happen with English in a place  like Sierra Leone, where literacy and exposure to Standard English would have been comparatively low while Krio was evolving.   But it could happen in the future in any part of the English-speaking world, whether as a result of limited exposure to the main English-speaking community, a reduction in the prestige of the parent language, or a need for a separate language for purposes of group identity.  If you listen to Krio being spoken it’s a fascinating glimpse of the kinds of language that would emerge: still recognisable as part of the same family and still partly comprensible, but no more similar to standard English than Romance languages are to one another.

The complete isolation of the people in Dark Eden and their very limited literacy would have undoubtedly have resulted in their language diverging from Standard English.  (Their isolation is obviously far greater than that of Krio-speakers in Sierra Leone.  On the other hand, Standard English was spoken by their forebears, which is not the case with creole languages).

I tried to give a small sense of this divergence with the small variations in grammar and vocabulary that everyone notices in the book.  One of the drivers for this divergence, I thought, would be the  fact that, at the beginning, the population would have consisted of two parents and their children, which I felt would result in simplified childish forms becoming established, without a wider adult world to ‘correct’ them.  (In a similar kind of way, Afrikaans is thought to have evolved a grammar that is radically simpler than that of its parent language, when Dutch settlers found themselves speaking on a daily basis to servants and slaves with only a limited understanding of Dutch.)

Rather pleasingly, I’ve since found that the most obvious distinguishing feature of Eden English is actually present in at least one variant of English found on the planet Earth:

It is common in Guyanese Creole to repeat adjectives for emphasis (as if saying, very or extremely). For example, “Dis wata de col col” translates into “This water is very cold”. “Come now now” translates into “Come right now.”

(Wikipedia entry on Guyanese Creole.)

*This probably isn’t the correct spelling.

On being boycotted

A reader (John) disliked my recent post about the Trayvon Martin case, saying that my summaries are missing some key points.  ‘Ugh,’ he begins!  He says he enjoyed Dark Eden but doubts if he’ll read any of my other books, and he advises me to keep my opinions to myself:

I have never understand why athletes, public figures and those that depend on the support of a broad audience interject their political/cultural opinions into the public arena.  They just anger 50% of people who may otherwise purchase their product.

Two things about this I found a bit depressing.

Firstly, the idea that I should conceal my views on politics and culture in order to get people to ‘purchase my product’, particularly since my ‘product’ itself deals with politics and culture.  I find that a bit ‘ugh.’

Secondly, the idea that we should avoid the work of writers whose political or cultural views we disagree with.  A book that hugely impressed me when I first read it as a teenager was Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the book about a libertarian lunar society whose motto was TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).  I didn’t agree then, and I don’t now, with Heinlein’s Tea Partyish politics, but it didn’t stop me appreciating, and wanting to emulate, the brilliance of the world-building.

One of the first accolades I received for Dark Eden was the book being selected as the ‘Big Read’ for the Greenbelt festival, and being asked to go there and give a talk about it.  This is a Christian festival, and I made no secret of the fact that I am not a Christian, but people were still interested in what I had to say about the Eden story, even though it obviously meant very different things to them than it does to me.  And God bless them for it!

*   *   *

In fairness to John, though, when I look back at my post, I can see it is unbalanced.   Clearly there was some kind of fight or scuffle between Trayvon and the man who shot him, and I can see that, given the bizarre context of a country where it is okay to carry a gun, it is possible to argue that self-defence was a factor in the shooting.

But why not also, then, in the case of Marissa Alexander, who fired a shot which didn’t even hit anyone?  Of course I don’t know the detail of the cases, but I find it hard to imagine any additional detail that would justify a twenty year sentence in the latter case, if a complete acquittal was justified in the former.

There are many studies that show how, in predominantly white societies, the behaviour of black people is much more negatively connoted than the same behaviour by white people.  Look at this video which compares the reactions of passers-by to a young white man who appears to be stealing a bike, and then to a young black man doing exactly the same.

Birth of a new book

I’ve just completed the first draft of the first short chapter of my new novel Slaymaker.  It’s only a couple of thousand words, which probably doesn’t sound much, but it’s the result of several frustrating unfocussed inspirationless days of faffing around.

And here’s the best thing.  It’s finally coming alive.  There’s energy in it.  There’s the beginnings of a new way of telling the story, a new kind of narrative voice, that’s unique to and necessary to this particular book.  And then there’s Slaymaker himself, appearing for the first time at the end of the chapter, rather as  a singer walks out onto the stage at the very end of the warm-up number played by his backing group.

Of course this energy will go again, of course they’ll be many more days when it feels like nothing will come alive at all.   But now I’ve found it once, I know I’ll find it again

Morocco

I spent the week before last in a place on the coast of Morocco called Oued Laou with two old friends, Clive and Jonathan.  Jonathan has a small house there and speaks Moroccan Arabic, which earns him huge respect.

The last time I visited him there, the trip inspired my story The Peacock Cloak.  On the hills around the town, cistus flowers, admired by Tawus at the beginning of the story, grow in great profusion.

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Much of the ground, though, is intensively cultivated by small subsistence farmers who grow wheat, barley, peas, lentils, onions and figs, all packed in tightly together, and keep goats, sheep, cows and chickens.

They live in very small and simple single-storey houses consisting of a brick wall, topped with flat layers layer of branches and twigs, and then a covering of loose earth (though some of them now have added a polythene membrane, a solar panel, or even a power line).  As I looked out at the little hillside village below I imagined people living pretty much as they do now in houses pretty much like these for thousands of years, while successive invaders – Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Spaniards – broke over them like waves with their various projects of subjugation/improvement/religious conversion/enlightenment/ modernisation.  Just like Tawus.

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And like Tawus too, we found ourselves to be the objects of fascination and even wonder.  One old woman stood with her hand over her mouth as if to stifle shrieks of incredulity, while her more confident daughter questioned us sharply about ourselves.  Where did we come from, France or Spain?  (There were only two options, I understand.)

They insisted we came in for mint tea and fried eggs.  The goat wandered in after us and settled down comfortably in a corner of the bare earth floor.   The daughter looked across at it and drew a finger over her throat to indicate the goat’s fate after Ramadan, telling us of the many uses to which its meat and skin would be put.

The tea was like polo mints dissolved in water.  The eggs were delicious too.

Science Fiction

I attended a seminar on an  SF  module, led by my friend Prof Rowlie Wymer.   Rowlie was describing a particular SF short story.  I forget which story it was, but it had all the virtues that are the hallmarks of good SF, a certain kind of disciplined playfulness.   And the thought came to me that ‘science fiction’ is correctly named, not because it necessarily deals  with science, but because of a certain similarity between its methodology, its creative strategy, and the scientific method.  You take the world as we know it, you manipulate certain variables, you see what happens, you explore the implications. As another professor, Ian Stewart, said at the Clarke award event, science fiction is about ‘what if’.

Waterloo Sunset

I very much enjoyed this programme about Ray Davies. I was struck by his comment about one of his songs (I think it was ‘Days’) that the words might seem ‘a bit naff’ on their own, but he felt that the music transformed them.   Actually that is true, I think, of quite a bit of his stuff.   People usually praise the words, the little observations and stories, but on their own the observations are not necessarily all that original.  There are a lot of songs, for instance, about the fears and longings of suburban life (‘Mr Pleasant’ or ‘Shangri-la’) which, taken just as stories and observations, are amusing but quite commonplace.  But the music really does transform them into something else.

In fact I’d say his musical inventiveness is, if anything, rather underrated, or at any rate not so often remarked on.  His back catalogue of songs (imagine having written ‘You really got me’, ‘Days’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Lola’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’!) is quite exceptionally varied in terms of moods, rhythms and musical colours, and is full of lovely details and surprises.  Listen, for instance, to the way that the strange and melancholy song ‘See my friends’ changes its feel and rhythm in the middle of each verse, opening up, and then drawing back again.

For various reasons, although I grew up in the 60s and 70s, I didn’t encounter ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at all until about 5 years after it came out.  But when I did finally come across it I was really blown away, and I still am.   It really is the most amazing marriage of words and music.  There is actually not one single word of description of the sunset itself, yet when I listen to this song, the harmonies rising up over the melody instantly evoke to me an enormous brightly coloured sky, towering up over the little figures of Terry and Julie, and the people swarming out of the underground, and the song’s narrator, watching the whole scene from his window.

(As I’ve observed before, vivid descriptive writing isn’t so much a matter of providing detailed instructions of a scene, as of giving readers/listeners permission to construct the scene for themselves.  This is a perfect example.  We all know what sunsets look like, and don’t need to be told, but we do need something to trigger off the whole set of associations, something to allow us to pretend that a sunset is happening right now.)

The Glastonbury version of the song here is performed with the Crouch End Chorus, which includes my good friend Clive among its tenors.  Lucky man.

(Clive lives in North London, where Davies grew up and still lives, very much in the surroundings in which the programme is filmed.  The programme reminded a bit too of an odd but interesting book by another North Londoner that I wrote about here.)

YA?

Genre labelling can be annoying.  I have more than once moaned here about the fact that a lot of people won’t touch my books, simply because they are ‘science fiction’.   Another genre label that I’ve seen applied several times recently to Dark Eden is ‘YA’.  (According to Wikipedia: “Young-adult fiction or young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA), also juvenile fiction, is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults”.)

Well, the book is certainly primarily about young adults – the two main narrators/protagonists of this book are both (in Earth terms) in their teens – and I’m very pleased and proud to hear that teenagers and young adults are enjoying the book.  But I didn’t write the book for teenagers or young adults, or for middle-aged adults or indeed for any specific demographic group.   I try to write books and stories that I’d like to read.  And personally I don’t seek out stories with characters of my own age and background (how dull that would be), or stories aimed at my own age group.

The assumption behind labelling Dark Eden as YA seems to be that, because a book is about a certain type of person, it must therefore be written specifically for that type of person.  It’s an assumption you can often also see being made in the way that individual books are marketed.  (For example, ‘This is a book for anyone who has ever loved and lost’).

Well, I suppose one reason for reading a book is to look for role models and validation, people you can identify with, people who will confirm that it’s okay to be the person you are, but it would be rather limiting if that was the only reason we read books.  And unhealthy and atomising too.  (Do we want each age group and each gender to occupy its own separate little cultural bubble?)   The point of reading fiction is surely to imaginatively experience lives that are different from your own, not just to look into a mirror and see some sort of idealised version of yourself.

Dark Eden seems to appeal to a lot of different people, men, women, young, old, atheists, Christians… etc etc.   And that’s exactly what I wanted it to do.