Giordano Bruno and Alessandro Gallenzi’s The Tower

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TheTowerweb2Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) didn’t do himself any favours. Not only did he adhere to a set of particularly extraordinary heresies but he also didn’t know when to shut up. Unlike his predecessor Copernicus who was happy to claim that his model of the universe was a mere mathematical convenience, rather than a description of reality, Bruno wandered around Europe shouting out his contentious beliefs to all and sundry and generally being obnoxious and argumentative. He was a bit like a drunken mate in a pub who when asked to keep it down merely bellows his off-colour remarks all the louder.

Bruno argued that the universe was infinite and filled with stars like our own sun. These had their own orbiting worlds populated by sentient beings and when anything in this limitless manifestation of the divine soul died it was reincarnated. To a beleaguered church battling against the rise of Protestantism and trying to get its head around the idea that the earth might go round the sun instead of vice versa this was turning the heresy knob all the way up to 11 and so they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600.  In the history of science Bruno is generally regarded as a brief diversion away from the more sensible post-Copernican tradition of Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton. His beliefs were too deeply embedded in the alchemical tradition and he spent a lot of his time developing the Memory Systems of classical antiquity into a mystical schema to unify man’s mind with creation.

Giordano_Bruno_Campo_dei_Fiori

Giordano Bruno

It’s a commonly held myth that the Vatican was firmly entrenched against the new astronomy. The objections to a heliocentric model were mathematical rather than spiritual. Sending the planets around the sun in perfectly circular orbits is as inaccurate as the old Ptolemaic model – it was only when Kepler realised they follow elliptical paths that the sums fell into place and mirrored what observers saw through their telescopes. What really exercised the authorities was the debate around transubstantiation (i.e. the belief that bread could change its substance and become flesh) because a challenge to that was an attack on the Mass, which was the cornerstone of the Catholic faith. The cardinals quite rightly didn’t care what was going on through Galileo’s telescope, they were more agitated about his theories about the properties of matter. Similar attacks on the idea of the Trinity and the soul had the Inquisition out in force. Bruno’s suggestion that the entire universe was the soul of God and therefore we were all part of the eternal spirit sounded suspiciously Protestant. That and a tendency to make needless enemies by generally being obnoxious made his trip to the stake inevitable.

Bruno’s link with the Hermetical Tradition and the Memory Palaces of antiquity form the core of Alessandro Gallenzi’s tightly plotted thriller The Tower (Alma Books, 2014). The novel switches between the late sixteenth century, following the peripatetic career of Bruno himself, and the near-future Middle East where a Google-esque multinational is building a huge tower in the Jordanian desert to house the digitized archive of all the world’s books and manuscripts. The modern-day hero, a rather dozy investigator called Peter, teams up with the enigmatic Italian literary scholar Giulia to track down a stolen manuscript. The suspicious death of a Jesuit priest sent by the Vatican suggests that the document is another explosive tome ready to rock the foundations of the church. At the same time the tower itself becomes the target of anti-technology guerrillas and Islamic fundamentalists who see its quest for corporate dominance as an impious rerun of the tale of Nimrod, and who are also after the mysterious manuscript.

One of Giordano Bruno's memory images

One of Giordano Bruno’s memory images

Gallenzi’s portrayal of Bruno and his travels through late Renaissance Europe is superb, not only throwing light on the poorly documented chronicle of his life but also providing a great deal of sympathetic insight into the man’s thought processes. The author portrays the philosopher as a visionary committed to his pursuit of divine transcendence to an obsessive and obstinate degree. His unbending commitment to his goal – to create a memory system that will reveal the true nature of reality and allow the human spirit to be absorbed into the universal all – leads him to discount his friends and majorly hack off his enemies. In the end his downfall is less the result of his rather obscure heresies and more the direct result of personal animosity. Gallenzi really gets under the man’s skin and you can’t help but feel sorry for him as he realises that ignoring your enemies and disregarding your friends speeds up the inevitable.

The modern-day story is less assured. It manages to ratchet up the tension with a convincing plot, set against a terrific Babel-esque backdrop, but the characterisation is a pale shadow of the finely realised portrait of Bruno himself. Despite being an investigator the hero, Peter, falls into situations rather than tracking them down and he oscillates between confused, drunk and scared. His companion, the enigmatic Giulia, has potential and is a fun counterpart to Peter’s general uselessness, but neither she nor their odd-couple relationship is fully realised  and all the really interesting action seems to happen off-screen (murder, assault on the tower etc.). There are some very clever and entertaining set pieces – navigating through the Tower during a power cut, getting through Israeli customs – but ultimately it feels like the suggestion  of a very cool hi-tech thriller rather than the story itself.

For anyone interested in Giordano Bruno and his relationship to the Church and the Hermetical Tradition, The Tower is a must-read, primarily for its brilliantly evocative portrait of the man, his times and his arcane philosophy. The modern Tower of Babel story is also enjoyable, if sketchy, but has enough entertaining scenes to keep the attention.

You can get The Tower from Amazon UK here and from Amazon US here.

If you want to read more about Giordano Bruno and the rise of modern astronomy check out

The Copernican Revolution, Thomas Kuhn

The Last Frontier, Karl S. Guthke

and Francis Yates’ classic The Art of Memory.

Alessandro Gallenzi

Alessandro Gallenzi

Ex Machina (2015)

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ex_machina_posterIn many ways Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina treads the same ground as A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), I, Robot (2004) and The Machine (2013) in its portrayal of a robot trying to break out of its pre-programmed existence to become human. Geeky programmer Caleb (Domhall Gleeson – one of the Weasley brothers for Harry Potter fans) wins a competition to spend a week with the CEO of the  ICT company he works for in his retreat in the wilderness. When arrives he finds himself taking part in an experiment to see if reclusive control-freak Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) latest invention – a robot called Ava – can pass the Turing test (i.e. can pass herself off as human in her responses during their conversations). At first the overawed and gormless programmer goes along with the process but very quickly things start to take a sinister turn and he finds himself caught up in an intricate game of feint and counter feint between his boss and the android, watched over by the former’s silent Japanese assistant, Kyoko. The tension is given an extra twist by Nathan’s bizarre house. All the doors are operated by electronic keys allowing Nathan to control Caleb’s access to the rooms – effectively turning him into a rat in a maze, or a prisoner when the power occasionally fails.

caleb

What sets the movie apart from its predecessors is that focuses less on the standard ‘Is she human or not?’ question. Garland probably assumes that we’ve seen enough of these kind of films to figure out that the answer’s inevitably yes. Instead he switches his attention to Nathan and Caleb and in doing so turns Ex Machina into a thinly veiled dig at the dehumanising effect of technology on men and their relationships with women and each other. Strip away the aura surrounding Nathan as the founder of the world-changing company (interestingly it’s the biggest search engine corporation – Google rather than Apple) and he turns into a lonely drunk incapable of empathising with anyone or anything. In his opening conversation with Caleb he cheerfully says they should just treat each other as two buddies, rather than as star struck employee and The Man – but it’s the kind of phony dictat familiar to anyone who’s been on one of those godawful corporate bonding weekends. The rest of the time he’s clearly gaming Caleb through an obsessively controlled and highly programmatic master-slave relationship. Caleb, on the other hand, is your archetypal geek loner who has clearly struggled to form any relationship with women. Tellingly when he confronts Nathan at one point he asks whether he assembled Ava based on his online porn viewing profile. He’s also watched Blade Runner one too many times as in one scene he goes through a rather gory experiment to check whether he isn’t a robot as well.

ava

Without giving too much away, as the movie progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Ava isn’t the ground breaking next generation of artificial intelligence that Caleb, and we, are initially led to believe. Nathan’s motives are altogether more sinister as he seems to be intent on creating the misogynist geek’s ideal woman – meek, compliant, constantly available and an eternal prisoner in the ultimate designer smart house. At this point it starts to feel like American Psycho with robots – a study in corporate alpha-male control freakery gone barmy. It also reminds me of the Futurama episode I Dated a Robot

robot

Visually the film’s muted, geometric composition echoes the overall lack of empathy between any of the characters. At least one commentator has remarked that it feels very much like a Kubrick movie. It drags in parts – there are perhaps a few too many explanatory conversations where the two programmers tell each other all about the theory behind AI, just in case they’d forgotten – but on the whole it works as a tense thriller. You know there’s only going to be three possible endings, but even so when the final scenes play out they are still gripping. Other deft touches include a completely bizarre disco scene halfway through which merely serves to underscore the self-absorbed and isolated world of the sociopathic IT guru.

I’d definitely recommend watching this back to back with The Machine. Although the earlier movie is more of a B feature Terminator clone it tackles similar ideas and has enough intelligence to bear comparison with Garland’s more considered and slow-paced film.

Some games I’ve played…

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Legend of Grimrock – an old style dungeon crawl.

 

A Happy New Year! I thought I’d kick off 2015 with a blog post about some of the games I’ve played and enjoyed over the last twelve months. Games are often seen as one of the writer’s deadly enemies. They can be a massive time-soak – an easy distraction when writer’s block kicks in or prevarication takes over – as Iain Banks found to his cost when he became absorbed in Sid Meier’s Civilisation. Yet at the same time well-designed and researched games can actually be helpful as additional fuel for the imagination and, in some cases, a sandbox to work out backstories. A good example of this is Paradox’s series of historical games, centred around their showpiece Europa Universalis (which I’ll talk about below).

I’ve been playing games since the year dot and class myself as a bit of a Grognard (‘grumbler’) – a term used to describe the cantankerous veterans of Napoleon’s Old Guard and which now refers to older gamers who cut their teeth on the classic simulations of SPI and Avalon Hill, with their telephone-book sized rules and coverage of some of the most bizarrely obscure events in world history (inter-dinosaur combat anyone?). I’m not a massive fan of the blockbuster-effects- and cut-scene-heavy epics of today. Grand Theft Auto’s clever extended homage to de Palma, Scorsese and Tarantino quickly got buried under an ugly misogyny that no amount of ‘post-modern irony’ could excuse. I might dip into an FPS once in a while to let off steam but on the whole I prefer games that appeal to my imagination, make me think and, ideally, can be put down and picked up in 10 minute bursts. So here’s some that have fallen into that category:

Papers Please

papersplease

UK Border Agency training simulation, Papers Please.

 

OK – you play an immigration official on the border of the totalitarian state Arstotzka whose job it is to stamp passports and decide who can come into the country and who can’t. It sounds about as dull as you could possibly get and yet it’s gripping, addictive and highly entertaining. As each grim day unfolds you are presented with ever-increasingly complex immigration rules and a steady stream of characters and their stories – do you let the refugee wife in after her husband even though her passport has expired? Do you deny entry to the human trafficker even though his papers are in order? And what about the sinister revolutionaries who keep pushing all sorts of weird stuff through the slot in your counter? At the end of each day you return to your Level 8 Apartment hoping you have enough money for food, heating and medicine for your family, and maybe enough put by to move into a Level 7 higher up the Stalinist block in Z sector.

Apparently the designer based it on his experience of getting a visa in Japan, a mind-numbingly bureaucratic exercise I put up with for ten years. I also spend a lot of time travelling to ex-Soviet countries, some of whom still retain the legacy of the Communist attitude to border management – so I can really relate to the game from both sides of the counter. The wonderful retro 8-bit graphics and brutal oompah band that greets each morning adds to the overall ambience. Available on iPad and Steam.

FTL: Faster Than Light

ftl

Fire raging through the ship and the oxygen generators are out.

 

This was one of my favourite games of 2014. It’s basically a resource management game that has you controlling your spaceship as it flees from the advancing Rebel fleet with data crucial to the survival of the Federation. There’s no spectacular Eve Online space battles. Instead you have a top-down schematic of your ship surrounded by an interface of its main systems, allowing you to allocate power, target weapons, open and close doors (very important for extinguishing fires or suffocating boarders) and upgrade. You start with four crew though more may join, or you might just as easily lose them to a variety of on-ship and planet-side mishaps. FTL is a variation on a Rogue dungeon – planets and enemies are spawned randomly and death and ship destruction is permanent – no save points to return to if you’re wiped out. That, and the huge variety of encounters built into the engine, make for a truly nail-biting and addictive game.

In one encounter my ship was drifting in an asteroid belt, severely damaged after a run-in with pirates. I’d opened all the air locks to suffocate the enemy who’d beamed onto my vessel but a stray rock subsequently took out the oxygen generators so there was nothing left to replenish the air. All my crew were barricaded in the sick bay and the only way to survive was to get them to dash through to the other end of the craft and repair the environment systems before they died from lack of oxygen. It was essentially a Star Trek episode (no-one made it in the end). Available on iPad and Steam.

Europa Universalis IV

The stunning interface of Europa Universalis.

The stunning interface of Europa Universalis.

This is the biggy. These days I tend to go for games I can pick up and put down and try to avoid the mammoth time-wasters I used to get distracted by in days of yore. Europa Universalis IV (EU IV) is the exception, simply because it is such an impressive and in-depth attempt to recreate history from the birth of the Renaissance to the end of the Enlightenment. The game is essentially Fernand Braudel’s classic three-volume Civilisation and Capitalism in game form so if you don’t fancy struggling through that worthy but long tome you can fire up EU IV instead and have a crack at governing any nation from the mid 14th century.

Most games of this kind focus on warfare, encouraging players to stamp all over adjacent territories in an ahistorical search for world domination. In EU IV war is, rightly, a difficult, risky and hugely expensive undertaking. Eschewing brainless land grabs the game rewards a slow-burn sandbox approach to politics, culture, religion and economics. The historical detail is staggering as you juggle your relationship with other nations, try to influence the Vatican or the Holy Roman Empire. You can try and model the trade empires of the Hansa or focus on developing a true Renaissance culture. In one game I was Doge of Venice but I made the mistake of bribing myself to re-election, each time eroding the Republican foundations of the state. One morning I woke up to find myself transformed into monarch, the largely republican merchants rebelled and let the Austrians in and the kingdom collapsed. For anyone with an interest in history it’s a fascinating game. Available from Steam and directly from Paradox.

Legend of Grimrock

Legend of Grimrock

Legend of Grimrock

Like a blithering idiot I sold my now-very-rare-an-valuable white box set of Dungeons and Dragons when the second edition came out. For a couple of years I and the other member of the Harrogate SF Society had spent many a Sunday afternoon in a damp basement flat grinding through endless dungeon crawls. These were the early days when playing the game was a simple case of hacking your way through improbably-housed monsters (‘you open the ten foot square room and are immediately attacked by six Ogres wielding halberds’). Nowadays my hard drive is groaning under the weight of many genre-defining PC RPGs – The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age: Origins etc… – but they take so long to play and demand such an investment of imaginative energy, despite the candy graphics, that I often hanker for a simple stomp down a corridor and a quick back and forth with a couple of armoured skeletons.

Legend of Grimrock (and its sequel) fills that niche. You have a party of four dumped in the labyrinth fortress of Grimrock prison and have to fight your way out through levels inhabited by increasingly powerful beings. Movement is across a grid and fighting and spell casting is straightforward. The nicest thing is the old style RPG setting where the auto-map is switched off and you have to make your own on a piece of paper, like in the good old days of grindcore D&D.

Honourable Mentions

The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga

To finish here are a handful of games I’m either still playing through or which didn’t make it into my final four:

South Park: The Stick of Truth.

If you like South Park you know what to expect. Right-click to fart. Canada is in 8-bit. Make sure you get the uncensored version that includes the Anal Probe mini game.

The Banner Saga

At the other end of the spectrum – a beautiful but flawed riff on old Norse sagas with some really lovely artwork and a sombre elegiac narrative of dead gods and a sun standing still over a winter world.

Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager

Play as NASA or the Soviet Space Agency embarking on the space race in the 1950s. This is a management game where you juggle R&D, make strategic decisions (Space Shuttle or Go to Mars?) and hire and motivate experts to bolt your rockets and satellites together.

Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations

Command: Modern Air Naval Operations

Command: Modern Air Naval Operations

Bit of a guilty pleasure this one. This is about as detailed and hardcore a simulation you can get and yet it also makes a gripping game – especially if you are a Tom Clancy fan. Instead of flashy eye-candy you basically get a copy of the kind of display Jack Ryan stands in front of – fluorescent icons on a world map as you conduct hi-tech operations against your enemies. The verisimilitude of Command is second to none, whether you are a Norwegian sub playing cat and mouse with the Russians under the Arctic ice or trying to take out a spy satellite with missiles fired from a stealth drone (I didn’t even know you could do that). Anyone writing about modern or future intel- and cyber-based operations should check this one out.

Midori Traveller’s Notebook

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A couple of years ago I wrote a post on my quest to find the ideal notebook. I’d grown tired of jumping from one PDA to another – first PalmPilot, then a Sony something-or-other and then iPhone/iPad, losing data, notes and contacts along the way. I realised, looking at my shelves, that I had diaries and a Filofax from twenty-five years ago with all my words and doodles intact, yet 95% of the notes I’d tapped out on little screens in the intervening years had disappeared into the ether – so it was back to pen and paper. As I explained last time I’ve been working my way through different notebooks – Moleskine (nice idea but shoddily made), CIAK (you need a brick to keep them flat) and Cartesio (cool diaries but the notebook paper is as suitable for ink pen as an Andrex loo roll).

Midori_closed

My Midori complete with 5 yen coin and grumpy monk Daruma.

Two years ago I’d finally come across the Midori Traveller’s Notebook and of all the journals I’d found this seemed the most promising. It was the essence of simplicity – leather binder with a notebook held in place by an elastic band. The book was presented and packaged with that groovy artisanal minimalism that the Japanese do really well. It came in a plain cardboard box along with a muslin sock to keep it in. When you opened the package up it smelt of dried cow and chemicals – and the binder was covered in a suspicious looking white talcum powder which apparently sweats out of the leather – proving how far it is from the plastic ICI-vat composite used on the other ‘leather-bound’ notebooks. The internet was filled with enthusiastic Midori fans posting pictures of their pimped journals, some so elaborate you struggled to see the book itself as the amount of stickers, fabric, pictures, belts, poppers and adornments had transformed it into something that looked like a deranged Laura Ashley sofa. While the journal only came with a single 60-page blank insert you could order a range of add-ons, or make your own simply by cutting paper to size and sticking it through the elastic band.

So have I found the notebook I was looking for? Well I now have three MTNs– two standard size and one passport size which doubles as a wallet, so I guess the answer’s yes. For a brief period I was in two minds – on occasion the Midori felt more like a pack of cards held together by a rubber band than an actual book – but daily use has convinced me that of all the notebooks I’ve used this is by far the best quality and nicest to use. In time-honoured fashion here’s a run-through of why I think the Traveller’s Notebook is great and a description of how I’ve set up my own.

Plastic zip pocket and card pocket insert.

Plastic zip pocket and card pocket insert.

I think there are two things that make the book so pleasant to use. Firstly every component exudes the kind of quality that you only find in Japan. It’s a bit odd using this term in reference to a piece of leather, some string and elastic and blank paper but the design and construction has been carefully thought through to the nth degree. I was brought up to use a fountain pen and to me anything else feels like trying to write on sandpaper with a chisel. Most notebooks these days skimp on paper quality and it doesn’t really matter if you use a biro or ball pen, but the results from an ink pen can truly look miserable. I’ve yet to come across any bleed or feathering on any of the Midori inserts, even on the ones with thinner paper. The leather is thick and ages really well – scuffs, scratches and darkening adding to the whole Book of Forbidden Lore look. Inside I’ve added some clear pockets to the inside cover, a plastic zip sleeve, a card pocket and three notebooks, one for work, one for creative ideas and one as a journal where I make notes about my travels and glue tickets, mementoes and (mainly) restaurant cards. Removing/adding inserts is a doddle, you just strap them in with rubber bands, although realistically the size of the leather cover means you’re limited to three maximum.

Daily journal with cards held in place by nifty pocket seals.

Daily journal with cards held in place by nifty pocket seals.

This is another aspect to the Midori that I really like – I can’t put my finger on it but it encourages you to customise and personalise the book. It lacks the po-faced filing-cabinet constraints of the Filofax, though you can build your own Getting Things Done process around it, if you need to, and the web abounds with different examples. The casual boho feel to the journal encourages scribbles, doodles and random jottings in a way that others don’t. One very nice addition is a pack of clear stickers that create business-card size pockets on the pages so you can add mementoes as you go along (there’s also double-sided stickers and post-its designed to slot into the binder).

The Midori Traveller’s Notebook isn’t for everyone. Look past the starry-eyed hipster mystique and you’re staring at a bit of leather, elastic and paper for around £40 (inserts average at £4 each). But there’s something about it that grows on you – apart from the quality and clever design I think it’s the combination of how quickly you can make the journal uniquely your own, and the fact that you are completely unconstrained in how you put together the book, ideally with inserts you’ve made yourself, thereby saving a bob or two. It’s not a diary for the tidy-minded – mine is scuffed, scribbled and doodled in and stuffed with bits and bobs – but emerging from the walled gardens of Apple or Filofax it feels great to have found a note-taking vehicle that echoes the chaotic mess inside my head.

Someone else's infinitely artier Midori.

Someone else’s infinitely artier Midori.

I get most of my Midori stuff from The Journal Shop. Occasionally they run out of stock but they’re always responsive and the service is great.

AntiHelix, nuts and bolts and a writer’s workflow

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Sisters

I’ve finished the first draft of the third volume in the Book of the Colossus quadrilogy, AntiHelix, and put it to one side for a month to pickle. It stands at just over 129,000 words which is the  longest piece of work I’ve written so far (though I’ll hack it back to 120,000-ish). I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about the workflow I’ve developed, hoping it might be of some use to other writers, and to mention a couple of the tools I use.

In a previous blog I wrote about Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days, a book that turned me from a generally confused pantser into a planner. As I mentioned at the time the process she details in the book can actually be boiled down to a handful of steps. Over the last three books (and the handful of outlines and ideas I’ve got waiting in the wings) I’ve developed my own version. Now a lot of books on how to write are filled with helpful advice on creating characters, stories, backstory etc. which is all well and good but I think that some of them do have the tendency to over-exaggerate writing as a deeply personal creative art. It’s a modern version of the myth invented by the Romantic poets when they found themselves having to redefine writing as something you did on your own for an invisible audience, instead of work designed to please a patron with whom you had a personal relationship.

Thumb_fullsize

For me, at the end of the day producing a novel is a nuts and bolts operation and there are very few well-established writers or editors I’ve come across who think otherwise. To me writing a book is a like an architect designing a house. Ninety percent is precise engineering to make sure it doesn’t fall down and is pleasant to live in. Once you have this skill perfected you can then design amazing Frank Lloyd Wright confections (or Gherkins if you’re so-minded) to your heart’s content – but the main process of building is all about practical stuff like stresses, forces, beams, girders and mixing your concrete right. The kind of fiction I want to write was defined in three words by John Jarrold – Point of View, Clarity and Pace and the building of a book should aim for that. Unless you’re writing a post-modernist masterpiece that radically interrogates such bourgeois notions as ‘plot’, ‘character’ and ‘legibility’ then all else is icing on the cake.

Anyway – here’s my decidedly unpoetic method for writing a book. It won’t be for everyone’s taste but there might be a few useful nuggets for some. One thing I can say is that by following this I haven’t hit writer’s block in three years.

1) I fire up Scrivener, create a document called Synopsis and write out the basic idea of the book in a single sentence.

2) I choose a core of up to eight characters (a hang over from my script writing days when smaller cast meant a smaller budget) and write down a description, backstory and their key drivers. At this point I start thinking about their individual story arcs which will thread through the main narrative.

3) Next a brief description of the main locations where most of the fun will happen.

 

RaggedClaws

The above bit is more or less verbatim from Wiesner’s method, distilled down to the three starting points. I focus on character from the beginning so that by the time I’ve started writing the first draft I’ve been living in these people’s minds for at least four months. Occasionally I’ll use a photo as a character prompt but I find these distracting because the person in the photo then takes over the character in my head. I also avoid basing characters on anyone I know, or characters from films/books for the same reason, though some of them are a synthesis of a whole bunch of people I’ve come across over the years.

4) Next I rewrite the synopsis in 120 sentences – each sentence containing a major plot point or something to advance the story. Each of these sentences will eventually become a 1000 word scene. At the end of this process I then create 120 documents in the Draft folder of Scrivener.

5) I revisit the characters’ story arcs, break their individual plots into sentences and add these to the 120 documents where appropriate. I also find it’s a good idea to use the keyword function in Scrivener and add these to the documents. So all the scenes in which, say, Berthold’s story arc plays out I add a keyword Berthold. This way I can use the search function in Scrivener to build collections of scenes around one character. So if I want to check through Berthold’s story I just click on a button and all the scenes where he appears are collated together into one sub-set. It’s a brilliant and very powerful feature of the software.

ruthflyerheadssmall

6) Now it’s synopsis writing time – I turn each scene into (roughly) a 300 word synopsis saying what happens, who interacts with who and how they feel about it. The golden rule (and this is something I learned from Michael Moorcock) is that every scene must advance the plot in someway, no encounter or episode can be wasted or be just a time-filler. At the end of this first run through for AntiHelix I had a 40,000 word outline. What I’ve subsequently found is that here is where the bulk of the work is done in terms of plot, character development, point of view etc.

The great thing is that if I find somethings just aren’t working at this point it’s much easier to reconfigure the story. In the case of AntiHelix I discovered that one new character I’d planned on having throughout the entire story actually became redundant halfway through so I reworked accordingly. In the past I’ve tended to write the synopsis in the present tense, but switched to past when writing the book. Next time I’ll write the synopsis in the past as well, purely to save time as switching tense later is a pain. I’ve also discovered that some scenes are ready to be written in full – in the case of AntiHelix there were a couple of episodes late in the story that I wrote in their entirety, simply because I could see them so clearly in my head. Because I’d planned everything I could drop them in knowing they still fitted the rest of the tale.

largecaravans

7)  After writing the synopsis I put it to one side for a month – this is a must because by the time I’ve finished it I’m too close to the work to have the perspective necessary to be ruthless in making any changes. Four weeks later it’s a lot easier to revise and to make sure everything is water-tight before I actually start writing the story.

8) I’ve now got 120 scenes in a detailed synopsis. In Scrivener I group these into sets of four – each group will be a chapter in the final book. It’s a good idea to do this to make sure that chapters end at suitable break points and not halfway through something important (unless I specifically want a cliff hanger). I also colourise the documents in the outline view – green means that I’ve completed the first draft for that scene, and then I start to write.

ruthcovertest9) I try and set myself a goal of a minimum of 1000 words a day. In reality if I’ve done the synopsis right this ends up being 500 – 700 words to flesh out what’s already there and so, for me, it’s about an hour’s work. When I’ve finished a scene I go to the website Prowritingaid.com and use their online tool to check for repeated and overused words. It’s a very handy utility because no matter how hard you try inevitably you end up repeating yourself, and well worth the subscription. Once I’ve stripped these out I mark the scene as First Draft Complete and compile the whole manuscript to Kindle format to read before I go to sleep. This is a technique I learned from film-making when, at the end of each day’s shoot the director and editors view the day’s rushes. It helps me ensure there’s continuity of atmosphere and voice carried through from earlier scenes.

And that is basically it. It may sound very mechanistic and factory-like to a lot of writers but I’ve found it completely liberating. I can do all my planning at an early stage without fear of having to do massive rewrites, and by the time I come to write the scenes themselves I have a 90% clear view of who’s doing what to whom and why. If I ever struggle with one scene I can jump ahead to any point in the book and write that instead and this can even help me clarify anything I’m struggling with earlier on. It also makes it easier to interweave complex plots and make sure there aren’t any extended periods where the action goes flat or people disappear for no reason (I hope).

I hope this is useful and I’d be very interested to hear from other writers what their nuts and bolts getting words down on the page process is.

Interview with Jim Burns

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Go here for my review of Jim Burns’ latest book The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal.

Can you talk us through one of your paintings from concept to finished image – both in terms of the idea and the practical execution. My choice would be Tea From an Empty Cup or Crucible purely because of the stunning characterisation but please choose another if you prefer.

Tea From an Empty Cup

Tea From an Empty Cup

The process varies from painting to painting somewhat. It all depends on a bunch of factors from the outset as supplied by either the commercial client, the private client or, indeed myself – should it be a personal piece – the latter two categories becoming an increasingly large proportion of my output. Both the pieces you’ve chosen fit into the first category – were commissioned by publishers as cover images for books. This of course is the way most of my career panned out for the first 40 years but the weighting has shifted in the last few years more towards private commissions and personal pieces…which usually mean a different approach from the word go.

Tea From an Empty Cup was commissioned recently to cover a collection of stories by Pat Cadigan. The fee was modest – as most book jacket work is these days and as a consequence one is obliged to produce the image digitally as this can be turned around much more quickly…there is little commercial sense in spending weeks and sometimes a month or so slogging away at a painting – the economics of it simply don’t work. Also in the case of this particular job the design of the book jacket itself was highly configured before I even started work on it. Neither did I receive any reading material – which in the past was pretty much standard practice. I was simply given the cover template and asked to produce a feisty-looking female future warrior type in an appropriate SF setting. I have a growing reference library from model shoots I’ve had in the past and the woman in this image is based on one such shot. She (‘Teph’ the water gypsy) modelled for a couple of private commissions a few years back (see Planet of Peril, Days of Gloriana and Children of Forgotten Gods) and and I took the opportunity to take a whole bunch of extra shots whilst I had the opportunity. The initial design was passed in sketch form to the client for approval…which it gained  – and then the image itself was created entirely in Photoshop – utilising some Jupiter and  interior background I’d painted years and years ago for a different project altogether, played around with in Photoshop, the figure dropped into the image and her gear and clothing generally altered to fit the concept. In the ref photo her gun is my old Black and Decker drill..here changed to a futuristic rifle of some sort.

Crucible

Crucible

Crucible was painted a good few years ago for a Nancy Kress novel. This time I had the luxury of being able to read the book and to produce a painting as this was back in the days of ‘good fees’!! In the case of this particular novel the painted ‘moment’ is based pretty precisely on a passage described in the book (the manuscript having been helpfully supplied this time). The characters are all there to be found in the book and are based on a bunch of found, manipulated reference plus some material I shot myself. I have become quite adept at performing the old ‘Frankenstein act’ on found material…although these days I much prefer and almost always paint the main characters from my own photo sessions. Again there was a ‘sketch for approval’ stage – and the painting then, in a fairly ‘verbatim’ way turns that sketch into an acrylic painting. Acrylics have been my paint of choice for most of my career – although I’m currently considering getting back to oils..the medium I used up until the early 1980s. The painting in this case would have been painted on to a piece of previously gessoed board, this sanded to smooth it off but not so smooth that no ‘tooth’ was left. The process of painting for me, back then involved both the use of brushes and, of course the airbrush – which I’ve always found to be a hugely useful tool in my armoury. Finally I would have varnished the piece – although for varnish read ‘medium’ – the satin, matte or Gloss mediums for mixing with the paint working perfectly well as a good flat final varnish-like coat..and also allowing for further work on top should it be necessary.

The methods I use today on my own work and private commissions is diverting away somewhat from the methodology I’ve outlined above.

majipporchroniclesJB

Majipoor Chronicles

You seem equally at ease with machines, humans and aliens. Which do you prefer to paint/draw and why? What are the challenges of each?

I think I can honestly say that these days I like each equally! It wasn’t always the case. When I was much younger…before I ever became a ‘pro’ – it was the machinery I liked. The Foss approach! When I got my first commissions back in 1972 most of them were for historical romance covers and similar stuff. It was the ‘keep the wolf from the door’ period and work was work. By definition these covers almost always required human characters as their main element – so I gradually improved my figure work capabilities…and then when I started to get a lot more SF work the characters sort of crept into them too! And clients I think started to expect them to feature…and I found that nice niche where the human element always featured largely in my work.

Tertiary Node

Tertiary Node

I don’t find machinery a challenge as such…but I do like to push myself to suggest in the lines of a particular spacecraft for example…the sense of its designers having different species mind-sets – different aesthetics…forms born of alien propulsion systems etc. I like my vessels to look ‘designed’ within whatever bizarre parameters have been thrown up by the story or by my own imagination. I never want this stuff to be easy – that way lies laziness.

Aliens are always fun to do! Much the same ideas are brought to bear as with the machinery. Alien should look alien to my mind. I absolutely hate the idea – mostly here I blame Star Trek and its various spinoffs…of aliens being humans with funny looking foreheads.

You have a very distinctive use of colour – limited palette and high contrast. Can you tell us a little about how and why you choose your colour schemes and design your compositions?

I think I’ve grown towards the idea of the limited palette more and more as time has gone by. Gradually it seemed to me to be a lazy and rather unsophisticated approach to just chuck the entire spectrum of colour at a painting. In recent times I’ve studied the old, old Renaissance technique – that of the old masters – of ‘grisaille’, ‘brunaille’ and in particular ‘verdaille’. I employ it for slightly different reasons than they did but I like the potential richness it can bring through the use of transparent colour glazes laid over a monochromatic underpainting. The three terms reflect in order, grey, brown and green underpaintings…most of the tonal values – the light and the dark created at this time prior to the glazing. This speeds up the process (theoretically!) and also I’m able to fall back on my old airbrush skills for the glazing element…and of course I’m using acrylics for this which would not have been the case in the Renaissance. High contrast is not a deliberate thing with me…it just happens to turn out that way! I shall be endeavouring more and more to inhabit the middle tonal zones…use less Paynes Grey for a start!

Courtship Rite

Courtship Rite

Compositions for book jacket work were often very highly constrained by the format. Depending on whether a piece was a wraparound or front cover only , the main element would either tend to occupy the lower right corner (wraparound) or the bottom two thirds (front cover). Lettering and blurb considerations dictated this. In my own work I think I have a fairly good eye for balanced yet unusual compositions. I have no formal training for anything to do with technique or composition (that was art college for you back in the late 60s/early 70s…and I don’t think it’s any better now!)

hisconqueringswordJB

His Conquering Sword

I think I see a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence in your own paintings (especially from artists like Edward Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The Pre-Raphaelites were among the first of the manifesto artists. If you were to write an artists’ manifesto/SF artists’ call to arms what would it say? What would you call your movement?

Hmmm …people will start labelling me as ‘pretentious’ if I bite this bullet! What you have to remember is that I came at this business from a very distinctly commercial art perspective. I was never a man driven by artistic inner demons or some high falutin’, soul-searching, personally-driven motive. I had some skills as a painter, learned a few techniques and tricks as I went along, this much helped by a good imagination – and for a long time I was content to be simply that – an illustrator of other peoples’ words for a commercial purpose. Making a living with a young family to feed etc…And at no point did I ever regard illustration as some inferior art form. I always believed the best of it is as being as interesting and accomplished as art created for different purposes. It’s inevitably connected – but the notion of an ‘Illustrators’ manifesto’ is something that has never ever crossed my mind!

A Quantum Murder

A Quantum Murder

However, as time has gone by and illustration..well at least book jacket art within the genres of the fantastical has become more and more catered for by digital art..indeed some of us have moved sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically into territory that one would have to admit aligns itself more with the the accepted baggage of the fine art world…namely gallery representation, private commissions and the time for our own creative juices to start flowing unencumbered by commercial considerations. And you’ll find that for those of us who like to paint our ‘fantastical’ subject matter in the traditional way…then the period dominated by the Pre-Raphaelites and various associated groupings of artists – mostly English and European – still strikes a chord.

So a visit to something like Illuxcon…’The Symposium of Imaginative Realism’ (yes…we are ‘Imaginative Realists now!) will demonstrate that those elements of the Pre-Raphaelite Manifesto interested in naturalistic detail, intense colour and busy composition, the natural world and Romanticism…those are still strong themes that thread through our work. Of course it has a modern take in terms of subject matter..although having said that I personally am becoming more and more drawn to mythological subject matter (perhaps with a contemporary twist!) and also Romantic poetry..in fact a piece I’m about to start on is based on a Keats poem – ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’- frequently the subject of 19th century art…but  I want to give it a darker twist than the usually somewhat bland approach of yesteryear. The poem is after all pretty dark. My version will be called ‘Poor Lorenzo’ (probably) and instead of a wan English lass draped miserably over the pot of basil – will feature a beauteous dark haired Florentine girl caressing the semi-putrescent head of Lorenzo and maybe an empty pot, strewn basil and earth etc. It’s all there in the poem. On holiday last year in Symi I spied a gorgeous half Greek/half Mexican girl who I thought …there’s my Isabella!!..and I should hastily add, at my wife’s prompting..approached her. And got the reference material I needed.

planetstoryJB

Colonel Kylling (Planet Story)

The term isn’t mine – but more and more it’s becoming associated with the loose ‘fellowship’ I think I identify in the artists who gather at Illuxcon…so maybe ’The Fellowship of Imaginative Realists’ (if you insist!!) might do? Or even more pretentiously ’The Fellowship of the Fantastical’?

If you had the opportunity of working in the school of any artist from history, who would it be and why?

Oh gosh – what hard questions!!! I can’t think of a sensible serious answer to this!!! Of course it would be great to associate with those Pre-Raphaelite guys..in part because one would also be knocking around with a whole bunch of other artists associated with them and whose work I often find more interesting. Artists like Collier, Godward, Dicksee, Waterhouse and photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron. One could learn a lot! But there’s no getting away from the often kitschy, corny, sentimental, morbid, gutless aspects of some of the art of that time. I’d love to find a way to reinterpret some of their themes but in contemporary, darker ways and it’s that darker approach I find difficult. I know I have it in me – that darker streak! – but I find it hard to express it adequately in paint.

artificialthingsJB

Artificial Things

So let’s say I’m taking 6 months out to go and stand at the shoulder of a dead painter here…I wouldn’t go very far back..in fact I would go to the Polish studio of Zdzisław Beksiński the ‘Fantastic Realist’ who died in 2005 (horribly murdered actually!). He was apparently a man of generally quiet demeanour, shy but amusing and funny, liked company and good music both classical and rock and always worked with mostly classical stuff playing in the background…sounds like my kind of a man…but who successfully managed to trawl the darkest depths of some zone of his imagination somehow – even though the absolutely horrifying results…brilliantly horrifying results! – in no way reflected the apparently pleasant demeanour of the man himself. I would dearly love to find out if there’s a secret to finding this place within myself!!

What is wrong with contemporary art? Which contemporary artist/movement do you admire? Would you consider yourself to be a Stuckist?

Again – I really can’t feel myself to be strongly connected at all with the world of ‘Contemporary Art’. I’m assuming you are mostly referring to the Brit-Art style of self-indulgent, self-obsessed, largely meaningless (to my mind!), conceptual stuff in which the concepts themselves are usually trite and essentially meaningless?? And change hands for millions??

The Iceni Girl

The Iceni Girl

Well – one can get mired in this messy quicksand very quickly and I’ve tended more recently to acknowledge that this stuff exists, that it only has in common with what I and others like me create, one thing..namely the word ‘art’…that it has every right to exist – and I would always say of any artist trying to make a living in whatever style they choose..’good luck to them’ (although I rather resent the millions they get!!)..But it’s a world unto itself. Self-absorbed, ego-driven, contemptuous of ‘irrelevant’ traditional values, deliberately and contemptuously obscurantist..’If you don’t get it that’s your problem and I don’t need to explain it to you’ (usually meaning that the concept has either no meaning or that the meaning is so shallow and pointless that it is embarrassing to even attempt to define it). Its sense of superiority and entitlement does sicken me I have to say…and the sub-literate claptrap one sometimes has to listen to from its practitioners and adherents is particularly annoying because on the whole I find art that’s informed by intelligence more interesting. And really that’s the thing with me. I simply find contemporary art mind numbingly boring. It rejects technique in favour of trite conceptualisation…I can’t bear to look at most of it. And eventually it will vanish up its own vacuous fundament and – I suspect – something resembling a new Representationalism will find its way back into favour. A return to drawing and painting …indeed there are signs that this happening.

No I’m not a Stuckist per se!! I think there’s room for everything. The idea of demonstrations and the politicising of creativity strikes me as dumb. But I can sympathise with its ideals. And importantly…if you look at a lot of what gets labelled as Stuckist Art…well much of it is really, really horrible!!! A LOT of very bad painters subscribe to Stuckism. No – I’ll happily just keep ploughing my own little furrow and people can compare or associate me with whoever they like! I know so many artists who get constantly pissed off and angry at ‘other art’ – particularly when the dosh is all heading off in that direction! I don’t get angry about any of this. I suppose the words are ‘bored’ and ‘bemused’.

Seasons of Plenty

Seasons of Plenty

Finally – what would your advice to a young artist be?

Think twice!! No – that’s trite…but laced with a streak of common sense maybe!! It’s harder now than it was when I was starting out. The word ‘artist’ is somewhat loaded. I’ve always thought of myself primarily as an ‘illustrator’…and a commercial illustrator at that. And there is no question that the commercial arena…in particular ‘the worlds of the fantastical’ is populated hugely these days…mostly I think… by practitioners of digital illustration. Hundreds…thousands of them!! The competition is incredible and I suspect that the ‘shelf life’ of artists working in this way is limited. Those who prefer to work in paint will find it harder to make a living these days as fees are tiny in comparison to a decade or two ago…so making a living at this game is extremely precarious. I feel it’s presumptuous of me to offer advice really. It’s a different world from 1972 when I started out. Everything then was paint..and in the U.K. and U.S. I would guess that the total number of artists/illustrators making a living out of it back then was a very few dozen at most. (I’m talking specifically about SF art on book jackets here). I was lucky to be counted amongst their number and have been able to build a career and a reputation of sorts over 40 odd years. I don’t see how that state of affairs can exist nowadays. At least not in the world of cover artists.

Jim Burns

Jim Burns

The one bit of advice I don’t feel unsure about is that if you are enjoying exploring your creativity in pencil and paint…then never stop pursuing it as it will provide a dimension to your life that is not open to everyone. To be creative in any way is an enormously rewarding gift…but don’t expect it to necessarily pay the bills! Always have a Plan B! But go on drawing drawing drawing!!!

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Jim Burns – Hyperluminal

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Hyperluminal coverFor me the golden age of science fiction and fantasy paperback illustration in the UK spanned the 70s and 80s. While 60s covers often favoured a minimalist Pop/Art approach the following decade saw an explosion of wildly imaginative and entrancing art, dominated by a handful of painters, each with a very distinctive style. New English Library’s magazine Science Fiction Monthly (1974) provided poster-sized copies to stick on the bedroom wall and although it started off mainly as a promotional tool for their own catalogue they were happy to include works by artists working with other publishers, such as Chris Foss (Panther) and Patrick Woodroffe (Corgi). While US trade paperback art often looked repetitive and clunkily unimaginative, the UK seemed to be enjoying a renaissance in imaginative art.

Of all the artists to emerge from this era, Jim Burns stood out in my mind as an artist who was equally at ease with the human (or not so human) figure and the titanic and beautifully seductive imaginary technology of the distant future. Even the most famous occasionally struggled with people. Bruce Pennington’s inhabitants of his surreal futures could look sketchy and ill-proportioned. If David Hardy and Chris Foss added people to their paintings they were usually tiny specs dwarfed by planetscapes or massive starships. Jim Burns, on the other hand, filled his canvases with a stunning range of meticulously realised characters, brought squarely into the foreground and imbued with such life and personality you felt you could engage them in conversation.

slantJB

Slant

The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal (Titan Books, 2014) is a gorgeously produced retrospective look at Jim Burns’ work from the 1970s to the present day. Still very active with commercial and private commissions, his paintings continue to hook the viewer into detailed and precisely composed alternate realities, usually dominated by one or more characters. Above all his work excels in capturing both a moment and a personality, and in this respect he is closest, in my mind, to the Pre-Raphaelite painters John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones. There are three points of contact that I can see – composition and palette, the figure work itself and the idea of the tableau-vivant where a dramatic emotional moment is frozen in time.

homuncularium

Homuncularium – 2010

I’ve been lucky enough to secure an interview with Jim as a companion piece to this post, and I don’t want to pre-empt any of his comments, which are far more illuminating than mine. However looking through Hyperluminal I see a constant tendency towards a limited palette and high contrast colours. For example blue/gold in Homuncularium (2010) or his cover for Greg Bear’s Slant (1998). As with the Pre-Raphaelites this has the effect of giving the artwork an intensely decorative look, which makes the figure work and characterisation even more striking. Jim Burns’ people (and elves and aliens) are about as far away from the gormless cookie-cutter people inhabiting the paintings of (say) the Brothers Hilderbrandt. Dramatic characterisation in SF and Fantasy art can often end up looking like comic-book caricature, a fault that plagued even such talented artists as Kelly Freas. Jim Burns’ cast in any painting are instantly living grown-ups believable both as people (or creatures) and in whatever baroque or hyper-realistic future they find themselves in. In the Victorian theatre the tableau-vivant occurred at points of high drama when the whole cast would freeze into the living picture. There’s something about Jim Burns’ paintings that captures this unusual combination of intense emotion/action and stillness. Two good examples of this are Ancient Light (1988) and one of my own favourites – Crucible (2003) (see the interview where Jim talks about Crucible in detail).

ancientlightJB

Ancient Light

At a time when so much SF/fantasy paperback cover art smacks of derivative Photoshop clones of computer game box art (I’m getting tired of the endless copies of Assassin’s Creed), The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal reminds us that, in the hands of someone who has clearly dedicated their entire professional life to perfecting a particular kind of vision and approach, the genre is as capable of producing great visual art as much as literature. It’s interesting that his work appears to channel so much Pre-Raphaelite sensibility as it was in that era when the distinction between Fine Art and Commercial Illustration was far more blurred than now. Great painters illustrated fantasy tales of King Arthur, Boccaccio and Shakespeare and the works they displayed at the Royal Academy were printed in the equivalent of coffee-table books for Victorian and Edwardian families to enjoy at home. In an age when art is dominated by sneering conceptualism – as much in hock to money as the most commercial art – Jim Burns’ paintings show that a meticulous attention to palette, composition and figure work can produce art of real beauty that is decorative and compelling as well as illustrative.

Jim Burns’ website is here where you can see some of his latest work and order prints.

Interstellar (2014)

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poster**WARNING – Major Spoiler Alerts**

I’ve been face down writing AntiHelix for the last month so I’ve neglected this blog a little, but having seen Interstellar on its opening night yesterday I thought I’d jot down my thoughts. It’s a curate’s egg – some parts are very good, other parts are disappointing and I came out of it feeling that it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. In clearly referencing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Christopher Nolan was stepping into very big shoes and sadly they kept falling off. It’s essentially another attempt at a realistic space movie (like Europa Report) and has all the standard cliches of that genre (crew member cocks up, crew member mopes around, crew member goes barmy, people say things like ‘Doobry Flange Q5226 is out of alignment with the Thargalator’ and everyone bursts into tears and shouts because this is really important somehow). I’ve listed down the good points and the bad points, and now realise there’s more of the latter. That’s probably unfair because it was enjoyable and definitely worth seeing, if only for the accurate physics bits, but ultimately it’s a frustrating film.

The Good.

1) The science they got right. Much was made of the film employing the astrophysicist Kip Thorne to make sure the cosmic stuff was accurate. Having modelled a black hole in Mathematica he even found out new things about gravitational lensing, which meant that the aptly name Gargantua has rings of distorted light around its middle as well as round the edge. There’s a sub-genre of YouTube videos dedicated to trying to visualise higher dimensions and hyperbolic space – they’re fascinating to watch and the last part of the movie had the hero floating around a vast 5 dimensional tesseract which looked extremely impressive on the huge screen. The wormhole was also brilliant, and again apparently what the inside of one would really look like.

blackhole

2) Getting around in space is bloody hard, especially when time dilation and strange gravitational influences kick in. The human cost of travelling to new worlds was shown particularly well, especially in the scene when the hero and heroine drop down to a planet for an hour or two, returning to find that the poor bugger they left behind has had to twiddle his thumbs in orbit for 23 years. None of this ‘Let’s go to Tatooine – woosh – here we are!’ – each trip to a planet was a hard slog costing energy, time (as in Time!) and the lives of Supporting Actors I Don’t Know What To Do With (see 1 below). The planets themselves were particularly grim affairs – uninhabitable Giant Wave world, uninhabitable Ice Cloud world with abandoned loony, and Tunisia – which is how it probably will be, and not welcoming civilisations of Gangsters, Romans or Nazis with slightly different noses.

iceplanet

3) The spectacle. It’s a jaw-dropping movie and once they get off Earth it’s more or less constant eye candy but without the incessant fizzy-pop fuelled explosions and noise of your standard blockbuster. Despite its faults it didn’t actually drag – the exciting explorer bits were fascinating and the drippy schmaltz was annoying instead of tedious. This is definitely one to see on IMAX if you can.

The Bad

1) None of the characters are that engaging and most play to ill-concealed stereotypes. Anne Hathaway is irritating as the slightly thick emotional woman who comes out with a completely left-field argument about how ‘lurv transcends space and time’ which somehow ends up being the core message of the movie. Michael Caine does Avuncular Old Scientist and Jessica Chastain phones in Resentful Abandoned Daughter. Nolan doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rest of the cast – token black guy can’t handle space travel, an uncredited Matt Damon rolls up as Marooned Nutjob. Matthew McConaughey is particularly charmless as the Chuck Yeager clone hero. The most interesting character ended up being the sarcastic robot TARS. He wasn’t your standard humanoid like Marvyn the Paranoid Android or Bender, but a cool articulated rubik cube that looked like a fridge designed by Apple. Some of the scenes where he went charging through the water were impressive but it’s hard to think of a worse design for the cramped confines of space capsule. You’d be forever stubbing your toes or barking your shins on the damn thing.

Hathaway

2) America is the world and only NASA can save the day. The complete lack of any sizable reference to foreign parts or Folks From Not Round Here (apart for Michael Caine) means that the film offers up a depressingly Tea Party-esque vision of a universe in which the only people who matter, or even exist, are Okies who will save the day with homespun wisdom and a test-pilot suspicion of panty-waist city slickers. If a wormhole turned up near Saturn with a promise of human salvation the considerably less risk-averse Chinese government would be cheerfully tossing astronauts in by the hundred. In fact why send humans at all? Given that TARS the robot was infinitely more likable and spent most of the time saving idiot humans why not just send him through to set up tents and get the place swept ready for mankind to follow?

3) The plot – which ended up being a) confusing and b) underwhelming. Part of the problem was that the Oh My God denouement was flagged five minutes after the film started (‘Dad, there’s a ghost in the bedroom and he keeps sending me data about gravity in binary!’ ‘Sorry dear, I can’t sort it out right now because I’ve got to go into a wormhole but I promise I will reach back to you from the other side of Beyond and communicate with you somehow’). Thinking it through this morning I still don’t understand how anything got fixed, though clearly something good happened because mankind ended up in groovy space habitats floating near Saturn – apparently the result of Resentful Abandoned Daughter reaching a breakthrough that connected gravity with quantum mechanics, or something like that – it’s not really clear at all.

saturn

4) Scratch the surface and you find 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without the apes and Joe the Plumber instead of the Starchild. Hyper beings send message to humans – humans go through portal – weird shit happens – human comes back with revelation. Most of this was rapidly lost in the irritating ‘I will return to my daughter’ plot but there was enough of it there for tribute to wander over into plagiarism. The insistence on playing the last note of the opening riff to Also Sprach Zarathustra whenever something big happened was clearly intentional, but to my mind just underlined the gap between Nolan’s vision and Kubrick’s.

So all in all a mixed bag. Definitely worth watching but I wouldn’t class this as a serious hard science fiction movie. The intelligent bits are hard to find in the mess of a plot, and the lazy characterisation just serves to reinforce the prejudice that SF struggles with people – a fatuous myth exploded by the first ten minutes of the infinitely better Solaris (the Tarkovsky one, not the rubbish George Clooney vehicle).

The Company of Wolves (1984)

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prince

Wandering through Kate Bush’s imagination a couple of weeks ago made me think of a peculiarly English brand of dark fantasy that started in the late Victorian era with writers like George MacDonald and Lucy Clifford. These and others managed to write children’s stories possessed of such toe-curling nightmarish terror that they continue to haunt to this day. The development of Freud’s theories round about the same time let the genie out of the bottle – dreams were full of hidden desires, all to do with Sex and Death (as the good Doctor would have us believe). Throwing kids into the mix gave the screw another twist because a) children were less able to understand and control base desire and b) they were innocent anyway, and didn’t have base desires, right? This huge contradiction played itself out time and time again in Victorian and Edwardian re-workings of fairy tales and fantasy. Freud himself pointed out that those adults who clung the hardest to the notion of ‘childhood innocence’ were the ones who tended to spot and stamp on manifestations of non-innocent behaviour the most.

During the twentieth century children’s literature in the UK largely drifted away from fairy tales, turning first to the world of the resolutely unimaginative middle classes for its material (boarding school tales, Swallows and Amazons, Famous Five etc.) and then to a grittier, more realistic portrayal of children’s lives beginning with books like Gumble’s Yard (1961). Fairy tales were too childish, or twee, full of sententious moralising and everyone knew them all backwards anyway. This was largely thanks to Charles Perrault who, three hundred years earlier, collected traditional fairy tales, took out the rude bits and slapped a moral on the end of each one. His version of Little Red Riding Hood helpfully concludes: “there are also wolves who seem perfectly charming … who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions. Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all.” Just in case little Lucette was too thick to get it.

grandmother

In 1979 Angela Carter published the short story ‘The Company of Wolves’ as part of a collection of rewritten fairy tales aimed at adults, laying bare what Perrault coyly hinted at. Instead of the girl being a victim of the big bad wolf (and by association, the carnal advances of wicked man), recognising the validity of her own desire allows her to confront the beast on equal terms. So instead of getting eaten or rescued by Dial-A-Woodcutter at the end instead “she laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.” While an exhilarating re-interpretation of the tales, in the wake of the ladette culture of the 90s and noughties  its premise is a little suspect – women are just as randy and voracious as men and in matching male predatory sexuality with their own somehow transcend the gender imbalance (The ‘if a bloke gropes your bum defiantly grope his’ approach. I have it on good authority this is not a successful feminist strategy).

transformation

In 1984 Neil Jordan directed the film version of The Company of Wolves. It’s a fascinating movie – another lost UK classic swamped out by Ghostbusters, Terminator I and the only vaguely similar The NeverEnding Story. Jordan’s interpretation of Carter’s tale is particularly interesting because it’s multi-layered and cheerfully plays the different levels off against each other. We have the original pre-Perrault fairy tale, Angela Carter’s vision on top of that, and then the motif of dreams within dreams to frame the whole thing. In the movie a frightfully middle-class girl (Rosaleen) dreams a sequence of episodes. In her dream world she is Little Red Riding Hood in a vaguely gothic village. Her big sister has just been eaten by wolves after being chased through a nightmare wood filled with nursery toys. Grandmother (a wonderfully sinister performance by Angela Lansbury) takes Rosaleen under her wing for a while and tells her four different stories all to do with men doing wrong by women, in one form or another, and often turning into werewolves at the end. This is used to work through the theme of the girl’s own awakening sexuality vs. man the predator.

banquet

What makes the film a bit odd at this level is that the references to the dark power of sex are obvious to the point of parody. Rosaleen the girl bites an apple and finds a worm, a moth hovers next to a flame, spiders fall onto the pages of her prayer book and men whose eyebrows meet in the middle (guilty) are wolves in disguise. It’s almost as if Jordan was taking the mickey out of Sunday supplement versions of Freud Lite that equate specific dream symbols (zeppelins, caves surrounded by bushes, etc.) with sex. This doesn’t really sit with the dream within a dream structure which is altogether more ambiguous. At the end of the movie dream Rosaleen turns into a wolf herself and flees from her father and the other villagers back through the nursery toy wood with the pack. In the very last scene the wolves burst through the bedroom window where real Rosaleen is dreaming and she wakes up screaming to find her wrecked room full of big hairy beasts. At this point all of grandmother’s homilies and warnings seem a bit pointless in the face of something altogether more chaotic and disturbing.

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Visually the film is a treat – though many of the animatronic special effects, ground breaking in their day, look clunky now. I remember at one point in the first man to wolf transformation scene, when Stephen Rea pops out for a widdle on his wedding night and disappears for seven years, coming back looking like Neil out of The Young Ones. Taking umbrage at the fact that his bride, instead of moping around, has got on with her life and remarried to a young Carson out of Downton Abbey, he pulls all his own skin off to ‘teach this whore a lesson’ (!). When a wolf snout erupted from his flayed face the entire cinema audience jumped. Compared to transformation scenes these days it looks like a skinned muppet with arthritis but in terms of disturbing horror and cleverly iconic imagery the only film to come close is Pan’s Labyrinth. The movie is also a parade of well-known British character actors – with David Warner as Rosaleen’s decidedly gormless dad, Miranda Richardson as the woman done wrong by the son of the lord, and Terence Stamp appears in a wonderful cameo role as the devil handing out pots of hairy chest paste to idiot boys in the woods.

The Company of Wolves is available from Amazon here.

Kate Bush: Before the Dawn.

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Before the Dawn Sunset

Kate Bush with her son Bertie as the artist in A Sky of Honey

Spoiler and bad language alert: If you are planning on seeing the concert and you don’t want any of it revealed then read no further.  Also Kate Bush swears like a trooper.

I planned on writing this straight after seeing the concert but it’s taken me about five days for my thoughts to marshal themselves into any form of coherent sense. There was a point in the evening where I realised I’d paid a couple of hundred pounds to watch a 56-year old woman whirl around in circles on a stage doing bird impersonations – and that it was one of the best things I’d ever experienced in my life and well worth every penny. I’m not going to spend the next few paragraphs gushing about how brilliant the entire performance was – plenty of other people have done a better job and I realise not everyone reading this is a dyed in the wool addict like myself. Even Kate Bush herself clearly still doesn’t understand the effect she has on people. The opening line of the program explains that one of the reasons she wanted to go on stage was ‘to have contact with the audience that still liked my work’ (my italics) as if her fan base was about the same size as the two dozen losers who turn up to see Spinal Tap play second fiddle to a puppet show, and not the 80,000 who bought her tickets within the first 15 minutes of them going on sale.

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This was more or less the part where she started making bird noises.

A good point to start is probably comparing it to her concert The Tour of Life 35 years ago, which I saw at the Manchester Apollo. At that time she had only two albums to her name, The Kick Inside and Lionheart so the two-hour set saw her go through her entire catalogue. She sang every song as a unique piece, changing costume for most, accompanied by a couple of dancers and the illusionist Simon Drake. As with Before the Dawn it was designed as a theatre piece in three acts, and everyone was supposed to sit down instead of leap out of their seats and pogo in the mosh pit like they did at all the other concerts. Kate Bush herself was 21 and by her own admission terrified, and didn’t interact with the audience at all, something which Charles Shaar Murray picked up in his damning review in the New Musical Express (his was a lone voice amid universal praise but then the resolutely pro-punk NME was a pretentiously grim slog at the time).

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“You can’t fucking have bigger fucking waves!” – Kate Bush, 2014

In Before the Dawn she happily chatted with the audience, which on occasion was a bit surreal because she has a charmingly sweet, occasionally girly, voice, which contrasted alarmingly with (for example) scenes in which a puppet apparently batters a bird to death with a rock or she got chased round the set by fish skeletons. The two programs also make for an interesting contrast. The Tour of Life had very little in it and smacks of winsome theatre school artiness in its alternating poetry and stream of consciousness description of scampering through ‘rush-hour London, with … dancing clothes under my arm’. Before the Dawn, goes into fascinating detail about the concept, planning and execution of the two main dramatic pieces based on the The Ninth Wave sequence from the Hounds of Love album and A Sky of Honey from Aerial. It’s a wonderfully down to earth and often funny account of the herculean effort and massive attention to detail that made the evening such an incredible experience. In this prissy age I’d forgotten how sweary we all used to be in the 70s. Kate Bush clearly hasn’t (though to be fair she’d been submerged in a tank for 6 hours by this time and was suffering from mild hypothermia):

“You can’t have bigger fucking waves.” I said. “They go all over the fucking live vocal and they sound like a fucking bathroom, not the fucking ocean!”

“Well it doesn’t look right we need bigger waves.”

“You can’t fucking have bigger fucking waves!”

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It came as shock to see just how scary Kate Bush’s vision can be.

The concert was divided into three parts. For the first twenty minutes or so she sang half a dozen songs from Hounds of LoveThe Red Shoes and Aerial. It’s clear she’s put a dividing line between the first four albums, and the rest, and that she sees the core of her musical development in longer concept pieces from The Ninth Wave onwards – so no Wuthering Heights or Babooshka. To be honest if she’d just carried on working her way through a set at the front of the stage with the band behind her it still would have been a stunning concert, but then she switched into the first of the two theatrical pieces and the genius knob went all the way up to eleven. The Ninth Wave is a thirty minute journey through the mind of a woman floating in the sea after falling overboard, oscillating between fear, desperate loneliness, hope and finally a glorious reaffirmation of life. The piece combined film, TV, music, dance, lighting, creepy sets and costumes and a big helicopter-style machine that lowered over the audience.

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Kate Bush carried off by terrifying fish skeletons

 

The second piece, after the interval, was taken from Aerial. It’s less of a narrative and more a linked mood-piece centred around images of a sunset, birdsong and painting. This part of the staging used the motif of a painter’s dummy come to life to wander through the scenes evoked by the songs. This is when it struck me that Kate Bush’s vision is often a lot more sinister than I’d previously thought. Like the best fairy tales her music, and the visions she constructs around them, have a very dark side that on occasion took me by surprise. I’d always listened to A Sky of Honey (one of my favourites) as a beautiful elegiac sequence evoking long summer evenings and love. As the puppet wandered around the stage, and birds flew across the projection screen, it constantly felt as if the whole piece teetered on the edge of a nightmare (it takes a lot to make an enormous slow motion blue tit look threatening). The fact that the band wore bird skulls for this part didn’t lighten the mood. In fact the whole concert peeled away layers from the songs so that even though I know them all inside out and backwards, I now look at most of them in a new light.

Kate Bush

It was clear from the very beginning that Kate Bush was having huge fun throughout the entire three hours. When she sang the penultimate song, the achingly beautiful  Among Angels from 50 Words for Snow, her voice was just as rich and pitch-perfect as at the beginning. As someone said she’s set the bar impossibly high now and shown everybody else up big time. Interestingly I saw the gig the same week U2 dumped their tired going-through-the-motions stadium-rock on the world’s iPhones and the contrast was just embarrassing.

So it was as expected – certifiably insane and meticulously beautiful. Five days later I’ve still got all her songs running on an eternal loop through my head in that voice, to the point where I can’t listen to anything other artist right now because she drowns them all out.

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