Category Archives: Science Fiction

Samurai Jack

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I came back from Japan with a five year old and a three year old with heads full of Sailor Moon, Anpanman and Miyazaki Hayao, so inevitably when we signed up for cable back in the UK we turned to Cartoon Network. When I was a kid TV cartoons were pretty dire. I grew up a fan of Filmation (responsible for, among other things, the animated Star Trek) and have a lot of affection for their peculiar style of ‘minimal’ animation, wonderfully sent up here in Cheapo Cartoon Man. By comparison most of the stuff my kids were watching was brilliant – imaginative, stylish and very funny, especially series like Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog. Among all of these my favourite by far was Samurai Jack.

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Living in Japan for ten years made me a bit jaded and snooty about the portrayal of that country’s traditions and cultures in the West. Despite Cyberpunk dreams there are no corporate samurai or ancient traditions of bushido lurking under the surface of the Chiba/Tokyo sprawl. The average Japanese man or woman regards practitioners of martial arts pretty much in the way we look at Morris Dancers, and most are more concerned with struggling through their stressful office jobs, getting their kids to a decent school and paying off the mortgage. The biggest shock was the attitude to the films of Akira Kurosawa, who I’d always thought of as the backbone of Japanese culture. ‘He makes boring, pretty films for foreigners’ summed up the general attitude, a comment borne out by the fact that all of his later films were funded by people like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

shinobiwarrior

So at first I didn’t bother watching over the shoulders of the kids when Samurai Jack was on, until eventually they persuaded me to sit through one episode and I was completely blown away. While heavily influenced by Anime it had its own unique aesthetic and an insane premise which is best explained in the opening words of each episode:

Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!

By dumping a medieval samurai in a cyberpunk future ruled by the evil demon Aku the producers, led by Genndy Tartakovsky, could go to town with their imaginations, setting the honourable though slightly dim hero against ancient gods, alien assassins, killer robots, bounty hunters, deranged Scotsmen and all manner of odd foes. Every other episode was a clear tribute to a genre film or TV series, whether it was 300, My Neighbour Totoro or The Matrix. Most of the stories had Jack (a name given to him by a gang of bizarre street punks on his first arrival in the future) hunting for the portal to take him back to his own time in the hope he could change history by slaying the demon Aku. Others saw him tackling specific foes or setting off on bizarre quests (including finding himself a new pair of Japanese clogs when the old ones are stolen).

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Not only were the 30 minute episodes a fascinatingly eclectic bunch of adventures, but the editing and visual style also stood out a mile from other cartoons. To begin with the designers took the decision to avoid outlining, relying instead on minimal and often abstract designs and colour to distinguish between shapes on the screen. This gave the cartoon a visual elegance you don’t usually see in animation, and some of the scenes, clearly influenced by Chinese and Japanese ink paintings, are actually quite beautiful. Samurai Jack also drew heavily on the styles of editing used in Japanese movies and Spaghetti Westerns. Unusually for cartoons the producers were not afraid to have long periods without speech, relying instead on images, close ups and subtle sound effects. Split screen, rapid cutting and sudden slow motion also allowed for the ratcheting up of tension during action shots. Most of Jack’s foes are robots, which got around the problem of gore during the often pretty violent battle sequences.

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As animation, and a loving tribute to science fiction, fantasy and Japanese popular culture Samurai Jack is one of the best cartoon series I’ve seen. Not every episode is spot on, and sometimes the extended fights. where Jack dismembers yet more robots, drag a little, but there are very few bum notes in the four seasons that were made. To my mind the best episodes are number 6 in Season 1 (don’t read the description on iTunes, it has a major spoiler), Episode 5 Series 3 in which Jack confronts the ancient Egyptian Gods and the two parter from the same Season (11 and 12) which tell of the birth of the evil Aku (voiced by the Japanese actor Makoto Iwamatsu who played the shaman alongside Arnie in Conan the Barbarian). All the episodes are available from Amazon or on iTunes.

Patrick Woodroffe

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The Radio Planet by Ralph Milney-Farley, Ace Books

I’d already planned on doing an article on the fantasy artist Patrick Woodroffe when the news came in that he’d passed away and so, sadly, this has become my personal tribute to his powerful and often frightening imagination. Patrick Woodroffe was one of a small group of painters and sculptors working in the 1970s whose book covers stood out in a genre increasingly dominated by the Precisionist realism of Chris Foss and his many imitators. Woodroffe, like his contemporaries Ian Miller and Rodney Matthews, produced canvases that were an intriguing, and often disturbing, combination of fairy tale whimsey and twisted dream imagery. In his book Mythopeikon, published by Dragon’s World in 1976, he cited both Salvador Dali and the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artists (Hieronymous Bosch and Peter Breughel the Elder) as among his main sources of inspiration. He was also working very much in the tradition of the Bohemian artisan creative of the 60s and 70s – local painters and sculptors scattered throughout the English countryside producing work that cleverly mixed together ideas from nature, folk lore, fairy-tale images and nursery rhyme nonsense shot through with doses of Freud and LSD. The narrative accompanying his early watercolour Masked Ball sums up this zeitgeist pretty accurately and could easily have been the sleeve notes from a Gong or Amon Düül album:

Patrick_Woodroffe_MaskedBall

“I’m a tiger!” says the girl with the platinum hair. Her borrowed pelt invites caresses. The Rainbow Man, meteordynamic, spirit of the storm, spins in at the double doors.”

The grim realities of the late industrial Victorian age gave rise to a peculiarly English type of fantastic nonsense, epitomised by the writing of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. It’s little wonder that the collapse of the wartime social consensus in the 1960s, and a Cold War marked by the long shadow of the Bomb, encouraged the same. Like the Pre-Raphaelites they identified with, 60s and 70s art ‘rebels’ in England turned back to the imagery of child-like carnivals mixed up with a large dose of Freud and the odd tab of Acid.  At its worst it could be self-indulgent and narcissistic, but at its best, as in the paintings of Patrick Woodroffe, it had a wonderfully lunatic vibrancy that cheerfully stuck two fingers up at The Man, and the harsh media landscapes of American Pop Art. Filled with imagery from nurseries and picture books (especially smiling sun and moon faces) his non commercial works manage to tread the very fine line between infantile fantasy and full-blown freaky nightmare that characterises grotesque art.

Patrick_Woodroffe_EverlastingCovenantHis 3D painting I’m Coming to Get You is a perfect example. With its benign sun and field of chirpy faces it looks like it belongs next to someone’s cot, but I wouldn’t want it in the house because I know it would give me nightmares for weeks. The fact that a lot of his work was in 3D doesn’t help – all it means is that it looks like all those strange creatures are emerging into our world where they really don’t belong. The Everlasting Covenant is just as bad, and the fact that it’s from a quote from Genesis doesn’t help much.

Patrick Woodroffe’s commercial cover art for publishers like Corgi stood out from the rest because of its sheer vibrancy, and the fact that he could give a book cover an incredible sense of place and character, even the images that don’t have strong single figure. The monstrous blue harlequin he created in 1975 for the cover of the Avon edition of Jack Vance’s The Gray Prince is a perfect example. Clearly influenced by Italian Renaissance portraiture the creature gives off a fantastic vibe of sinister, opulent evil combined with real tragedy. His triptych for Piers Anthony’ s Battle Circle trilogy (Sos the Rope, Var the Stick and Neq the Sword) has the same wonderful sense of both place and person.

Jack Vance, The Gray Prince, Avon Books

Patrick Woodroffe’s figure work was often exaggerated or distorted, not from lack of skill but rather from the overall fantastic aesthetic he brought to the image. His covers were characterised by bright, vivid colours, a meticulous attention to textural detail and the desire to fill each painting with a wealth of information which rarely overloaded the picture. His covers for the Quartet Corum: The Prince with the Silver Hand series, which he acknowledged were influenced by the fruit and veg portraits of the Milanese painter Arcimboldo, match the baroque intensity of the books themselves and act almost as an emblematic index to the tales of the Eternal Champion.

Sos the Rope

Inevitably given his interests and background, his spaceships were less assured. He also painted covers for such classic hard-boiled detective novels as Dashiell Hammett’s The Big Knockover and Red Harvest which, while unusual, look completely out of place in the context of the stories themselves.

Patrickwoodroffe

Patrick Woodroffe’s website is as quirky and original as the artist. His recent work saw a return to Flemish inspired wooden box triptychs filled with smiling suns and brightly coloured surreal iconography mainly inspired, it seems, by his own naturalist folk art take on Christianity. The dark scary edge has gone from most of the works and even to a grumpy old atheist like myself they represent a joyful and quite beautiful portfolio of works. It’s a real tragedy that Patrick Woodroffe passed away as his art would often lighten up a tired and derivative shelf of covers in W. H. Smiths in the 1970s and he rarely failed to do justice the fantasy books he illustrated.

Europa Report (2013)

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News from Space last week confirmed the existence of an ocean underneath the icy surface of Enceladus. Furthermore it seems that this immense body of water is in contact with the moon’s rocky core, allowing minerals to leach into the sea. Chemicals, water and tidal heating caused by Saturn’s gravity point to the tantalising possibility of life. The only way to find out, of course, is to drill through the ice and have a look, a plan that’s been on the cards for Jupiter’s moon Europa for many years, and which forms the background to the found-footage SF movie Europa Report.

For a while it seemed that the completely ridiculous Apollo 18, with its moon rock spiders, had pretty well put the nail in the coffin of the found-footage SF genre and the horror versions were tying themselves in increasing knots. I know modern dads sometimes hide behind the video camera to avoid engaging with their families but if I’m rescuing my daughter from a coven of witches I want one hand to hold the kid, and one hand to hold the tyre iron, not a bloody handy cam, but hey ho. Anyway just when we all thought grainy video footage had had its day as a plot device, Europa Report breathes fresh life into the conceit, combining hard realism with a pretty engaging story.

The Mission Crew - slightly more competent than the BBC's band of muppets.

The Mission Crew – slightly more competent than the BBC’s band of muppets.

The release schedule of Europa Report was frustratingly odd. It came out on the US iTunes in 2013 as a download but wasn’t available here until this Spring, probably to coincide with the release of Gravity on DVD so it could ride on the coattails of that movie. Apart from obvious similarities to 2001, Sunshine and Gravity in its hard science approach to near-space exploration the closest ancestor is the BBC TV series Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets, produced by the BBC in 2004 as a quasi-documentary tour of the universe taking in Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, a fictional comet and Pluto. It was an oddly unsatisfying two-part series that didn’t really work as science or drama, and underscored a lot of the problems facing film makers trying to create realistic space journeys that have enough drama and interest to sustain a couple of hours.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The basic problem is that in between taking off and landing space flight is deadly dull and the writers are left with very little to work on. The choices are

a) Things Go Wrong – which can be pretty exciting and spectacular in the case of Gravity or Apollo 13 where things go really wrong. For the BBC documentary and Europa Report things can’t go too wrong, because then you’ve lost the mission. So things go a bit wrong and people gather anxiously around readouts muttering things like ‘I’m seeing a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’, which means bugger-all to anyone. The only alternative to this is Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up

b) Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up – and boy did they cock up in the BBC documentary. Whoever put this lot in charge of a multi-trillion dollar spaceship needs a quiet talking to. Nearly everything went wrong and a lot of it was down to human error – i.e. dithering around in lethal radiation zones, getting too close to the asteroid so the ship nearly got atomised, staying too long on Venus/Mars/the Comet etc etc. Inevitably this triggers the Crewman Dies scenario, followed by the Guilty Crewman Mopes Around. This can trigger Crewman Goes Barmy but then you are into the realm of Apollo 18 as real astronauts just sit on bunks and sulk instead of chasing the others round the ship with a hammer or a knife and fork like Big Jim in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

Landing on Europa

Landing on Europa

So in Europa Report we get Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up when Sharlto Copley gets Hydrazine all over his suit while performing a routine EVA and so has to be left to die in space, followed by Guilty Crewman Mopes Around when Michael Nyqvist’s character goes all Scandinavian and broody because he thinks it was his fault. We almost get Crewman Goes Barmy because he sees things moving around outside when they land on Europa and everyone else exchanges glances and twiddles their fingers next to their temples. Of course anyone with a fraction of a brain would be going ‘Bloody hell, where?’ but this is Seriously Real Space Stuff so instead they gather round readouts going ‘Maybe it’s a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’. From then on the film is just one string of disasters after another, people falling through the ice, engines going wrong, the ship falling back onto the ice, everyone else falling through the ice again until we get the final OMG scene at the very end, which to be honest was expected all along but is still impressive despite that.

Stepping onto the surface.

Stepping onto the surface.

To be fair, although the film, like every Lovecraft story ever written, rides well-worn tracks to the final reveal it is still an impressive and eminently watchable movie, and before Gravity came along a delightfully refreshing break from overblown action SF spectaculars like Oblivion and Pacific Rim. The cast, on the whole, act well even if their roles are a bit obvious. Sharlto Copley reprises his goofily enthusiastic Wikus from District 9, Michael Nyqvist does Gloomy Swede and Christian Camargo looks and sounds like Mr Spock as the science officer. The real star of the show is, for me, Anamaria Marinca as the pilot Rosa. The way she switches between I’m Going To Die terror and sheer, wondrous curiosity in the final few moments is very moving, flattened somewhat by Embeth Daviditz’s wholly unecessary ‘Well that really shook up our understanding of the universe, didn’t it?’ speech in which she seems to be trying to channel Margaret Thatcher’s accent.

In terms of cinematography and pacing, the film is spot on. Although ultra realistic space flight tends to consist of scrapyard vessels motionless against a black background, the special effects and imagery work beautifully to give a real sense of a journey travelling far beyond the limits of what’s decent. While the film might now be completely overshadowed by Gravity, it’s an unfair comparison as it has its own intelligent and considered pace that rewards careful watching.

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Ragged Claws out now!

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Goodreads Book Giveaway

Ragged Claws by John Guy Collick

Ragged Claws

by John Guy Collick

Giveaway ends March 31, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

 

Ragged Claws, second volume in The Book of the Colossus, is available on Amazon as an eBook and a paperback, and on Smashwords. Apple, Kobo and Barnes and Noble will follow shortly.

To order from Amazon.com click here.

To order from Amazon.co.uk click here.

To order from Smashwords click here.

To order from Createspace click here.

Ragged Claws, like its predecessor Thumb, is set at the very end of the universe, when all the stars and planets have dissolved into quantum ash. The last remnants of humanity live on an immense, flat singularity created for them by the alien race known as the Black Roses. Covered in the remnants of ground-up worlds this wilderness has become a workbench on which mankind is building a god. The titan, half a million-miles long from head to toe, will come to life and carry humanity to a new universe. Because there is nothing left at the end of time the materials to build the colossus are plundered from the past via wormholes punched through the singularity. These swiftly-fading portals also provide the last people with the clothes, food and artifacts they need to survive and so the realms of Ragged Claws are a patchwork of tatterdemalion kingdoms in which diesel-powered flyers fight battles inside the caverns of God’s body with guns and missiles, and men and machines are fused together into monstrous hybrids using science so rarefied it has become arcane magic.

The Great Task has taken a million years and is reaching completion, but over the long aeons most people have forgotten its purpose and turned on each other, building empires and kingdoms that plot, go to war, conquer, rise and fall. Max Ocel and Abby Fabrice are making their way through the shadowed interstices of the titan’s body in search of the Machine Men. Max carries him with a terrible secret that will condemn all of mankind to destruction and he finds himself in a race against time, pursued by enemies human and inhuman, and betrayed by those closest to him.

If you want to find out more about the universe of The Book of the Colossus, and the first book in the series, Thumb, check out this interview on Underground Book Reviews.

For those of you who have not read Thumb, the eBook version is now available at the discounted price of 77p/$1.28.

 

Ragged Claws available on March 16th!

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Release flyer

 

Max and Abby are trapped in the city of Interosseous where the inhabitants navigate through the treacherous streets using the giant faces in the sky.

If humanity is to survive Max must contact the Machine Men who live in the Heart and Mind of the Colossus. But the way onward is a deadly maze peopled with lost creatures transformed by the darkness at the end of time.

As Max tries to trace a safe path through the Body of God he stumbles across a pair of fugitives, and finds himself caught in a web of betrayal and conspiracy that ultimately threatens to destroy the last remnants of mankind.

Ragged Claws is the astonishing sequel to Thumb and the second volume of The Book of the Colossus, a gripping fast-paced science fantasy series.

Ragged Claws Cover Art

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The great news is that the manuscript for Ragged Claws is back from my editor, John Jarrold, and ready for the final knocking into shape before release. The book is 99% finished, with just a few minor adjustments and tightening of knots before it gets pushed out to the world. I will announce the release date shortly.

Anyway, to celebrate I thought I’d do two things. First of all I’m knocking the price of the e-book version of Thumb down to around 99 cents/75 pence. This is because Ragged Claws is the sequel (and part two of a four-book series), and people really need to read Thumb first to understand the beginning of the story of Max and Abby and the surreal universe they inhabit. You can buy a copy by clicking on the links in the sidebar.

Secondly I thought I’d reveal the beta version of the cover. Apart from a few minor adjustments this is what it will look like.

Ragged_Claws_Cover_Test_2

As with Thumb, I wanted a cover that referred to to an episode or characters in the book. I also wanted to change the colour scheme, so that the pallet for each volume in the series is different – Red for Thumb, Blue for Ragged Claws etc. I won’t spoil the story or give too much away by explaining who the white figure is, or what she’s doing with those glowing lines. I was still aiming for an overall German Expressionist aesthetic – big bold shapes and a sense of sinister mystery.

This image will be the wrap around for the paperback:

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Classrooms of the Future

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A young Spock at school on Vulcan. Education as mechanistic data stuffing.

A young Spock at school on Vulcan. Education as mechanistic data stuffing.

I work in education, advising ministries throughout the world on how to best use technology in the classroom. For most the process is one of constant catch up. Technology changes on a monthly basis, while education systems tend to work on yearly budget cycles. Furthermore if you tinker with something you usually don’t see the effects for years, until the poor little buggers in the classroom who experienced the change work their way through the school system and pop out into society. On the whole I try and point out that education goals should dictate how technology is used, not the other way round, but often grand gesture politics takes over and every pupil is given an iPad (or even worse, forced to buy one) because THAT IS THE FUTURE OF LEARNING, and looks good in the press.

The future of the classroom has been exercising the imagination of writers, artists and film directors since the end of the 19th century. Because most of them don’t really understand that education is primarily to do with human beings telling each other stuff and working out how to solve problems, they focus on the machines. In the World of Tomorrow education will be more efficient because either machines will do it, or machines will help us do it. Here’s a little wander through some of the various visions these largely misguided prophets have put together.

Robida

Ok, this isn’t that bad. This drawing from Albert Robida’s 1890 novel La Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique, which purported to show life in Paris in 1955. A young woman uses the téléphonoscope to study maths. It’s essentially online learning. The two striking things to note are a) it’s a woman learning maths – in Robida’s future women are equal, if not generally better at stuff, than the men and b) the method of delivery is totally old fashioned. A guy who looks like an eighteenth century vicar pontificates in front of a blackboard. For those of you who remember late night, flickering, black and white images of sideburns, Grateful Dead beards and kipper ties it’s the Open University all over again.

France_in_XXI_Century_School

Our current model of education is based on the industrial approach, geared towards producing an army of literate and numerate workers to go and work in factories, so it’s all about stuffing heads with essential knowledge and basic skills, even though the world has moved on and this kind of learning is no longer fit for purpose. This jokey cartoon from France in the 1900s shows the ideal learning machine of the future. All you do is wire the kids up and pipe information into their brains.

The cyberpunk dream of quick-fix education by jacking into the net.

The cyberpunk dream of quick-fix education by jacking into the net.

It’s the same paradigm as in The Matrix (and the whole bogus ‘learn while you are asleep by listening to a tape recorder’ industry of the ’60s and ’70s), where all you have to do is jack yourself into a computer, twitch around for ten minutes and bingo, you know Kung Fu, and Japanese, with 19th century Russian literature thrown in for LOLs.

isolator

As a slight digression, this wonderful invention of Hugo Gernsback is called The Isolator and is designed to allow the studious worker to concentrate without distractions from colleagues. Putting aside the fact that it would give any Health and Safety officer the screaming hab-dabs (let’s swap the oxygen cylinder for helium), or that you could make good money renting this out in certain clubs, it has perfect application in the modern classroom. I showed this for a laugh to an audience of education officials and teachers in a certain country and their eyes lit up, which was worrying. I’ve no idea what the thing sticking out the front is, perhaps it’s to accommodate the author’s pipe.

Japanesefutureschool1960s

So visions of future classrooms essentially ramp up traditionally dull ways of teaching using computers and robots. Forget the fact that the chalk and talk approach is incredibly inefficient for learning, all we need to do is to swap out the teacher for a screen or an android. This cartoon from a Japanese magazine in the 1960s shows how ‘computers’ will teach in the class, complete with little robot helpers who belt the kids over the head with red bludgeons if they get their sums wrong.

Let's see how quickly we can induce Terminator-style mayhem.

Let’s see how quickly we can induce Terminator-style mayhem.

It’s not surprising that Japan and South Korea, with their love of robots, now seem to be locked into an arms race to see which country can produce the most terrifying robot teacher. The Japanese have gone for the human looking one, though she is about as far down in Uncanny Valley as it’s possible to get, and has the disadvantage of being immobile, which is probably just as well as this monstrous creation looks permanently on the verge of running amok.

KoreanRobotTeacher

The South Korean English Language Robot clearly aims for the cute R2D2/automatic vacuum cleaner approach though that video face reminds me of the mad Cain robot in Robocop 2 just before it went off on one. For me this image sums up everything wrong with technology in the classroom, and what happens when the perceived coolness of the machinery completely overrides the education side of things. Teaching languages is about communication, right? It’s about people talking to people. Racial stereotypes aside (English is spoken by pretty, blue eyed, white, American blondes) how can anyone think that this abomination is a good idea? Those extended wing things worry me too, I think they have missiles in them.

things-to-come

Finally, on a more civilised note, it’s back to Things to Come to offer a paradigm of future education which is not completely tech obsessed or utterly deranged. In a charming scene towards the end of the film a grandfather explains history to his granddaughter with the aid of a giant Interactive Whiteboard (ok, a screen telly). Putting aside the hideously grating voice of the infant, the education paradigm it’s offering is that of Rousseau’s 1762 classic, Emile. In his treatise/novel Rousseau suggested learning was best done by the child exploring the world, and asking intelligent questions of a patient mentor. As the old ways of learning breakdown we may well find ourselves moving back towards this approach which, thankfully, relies on human interaction and not machines.

 

You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack – Tom Gauld

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A while back I posted one of Tom Gauld’s cartoons on this blog and wrote a brief piece for my newsletter. His work is so clever, and pushes so many of the right buttons for an Eng-Lit professor turned science fiction writer that I couldn’t help but share some more of his work, taken from his book You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013). Normally I hesitate before buying a book of cartoons, after going through them once there’s rarely enough to pull me back, but Gauld’s collection is a happy exception.

Sci-fi_vs_Literary_Fiction

Analysing jokes inevitably kills them dead, and besides these cartoons often poke fun at overwrought intellectual interpretations. Talking too much about Gauld’s work risks putting legs on a snake (as Kurosawa once described the process of looking for hidden meanings in his own movies). His ideas are reminiscent of Edward Gorey and the lesser known B. Kliban, both US illustrators known for their surreal humour and, in Gorey’s case, gently nostalgic nods at Victorian and Edwardian narratives transformed into total absurdity. Gauld’s ideas, like those of the Monty Python team and the stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, are filled with the same bizarre non-sequiturs.

e-reader

Sadly, this one isn’t in the collection.

 

One recurring theme is pushing together the (supposed) high-brow and popular culture, as in Samuel Beckett’s Adventures of TinTin, or Dickens’ Great Expectations re-imagined as an old Spectrum-style computer game. Science Fiction plays a big part in Gauld’s world, as do the trials of trying to be a novelist.

Tom_Gauld_No_8226

As a Science Fiction fan navigating his way through the often unbelievably pretentious world of Literary Academia (especially in the early ’80s) I feel like having half a dozen of these tattooed to my chest in reverse so I can laugh at them in the bathroom mirror when I get up. I vividly remember one ultra-cool Guardian reading professor who sneered relentlessly at SF ‘discovering’ Joanna Russ when the Women’s Press published The Female Man, (of course he still refused to accept it was SF at all). I can really, really relate to You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. A must for any writer/critic/SF fan.

Tom_Waites_street

Tom Gauld’s book is available on Amazon.com here, and Amazon.co.uk here.

Tom’s own website is here, and his Flickr stream is here.

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Corporate Samurai

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Wolverine decides between a Karaoke night and a Teppan Yaki bar

Decisions, decisions – Karaoke night or a Teppanyaki bar? The red sign trying to spell ‘Wolverine’ reads  ‘Noyohishiyoenyuushi’ which sounds like a new brand of underwear.

I downloaded The Wolverine from iTunes a couple of weeks ago. All good fun, even if it did go through the motions a bit, and Hugh Jackman is always watchable in the title role. It was set in Japan, at least the kind of Japan that only exists in Hollywood execs’ heads, and as such felt like a trip back to the early 1990s when I was living in Hokkaido, the northernmost island. At that time relations between Japan and the US weren’t great due to a huge trade imbalance, pumped up by the West as evidence that the Sons of Nippon were set to try and take over the world again, this time financially. Symptomatic of that era’s zietgeist were Karel von Wolferen’s ridiculously alarmist book The Enigma of Japanese Power and the film Rising Sun, based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name and starring Sean Connery. My Japanese friends were getting a bit sniffy about what they saw as the relentless Japanese bashing from the US and we all dutifully trooped off to the cinema to see the movie so they could get miffed bit more and we could attempt to mollify them by pointing out that not all Gaijin thought them avaricious wankers. It was a false alarm. Ten minutes in so-called Japanese expert Sean Connery opened his mouth, supposed ‘perfect Japanese’ came out, and the entire cinema dissolved into tears of laughter. From then on the film was treated as a comedy and Japanese audiences stopped taking US tantrums seriously, especially when shortly afterwards George Bush threw up in the Japanese Prime Minister’s lap halfway through trying to persuade him to buy American.

In the Science Fiction world attitudes to Japan came almost exclusively from Cyberpunk and novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. In these tales futuristic Asian cartels populated by corporate samurai slugged it out in cyberspace and the streets of future Chiba, a mega sprawl covering all of the eastern coast. Boosted Yakuza, Virtual Geisha and Otaku Hackers rubbed shoulders in the rainy streets of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and those images have stuck, recycled in movies, anime and computer games and egged on by Japanese who quite fancy themselves as Cyber Ninja. The problem is that this Japan bears about as much relationship to reality as Downton Abbey does to modern urban Britain. Having lived for ten years in the country, and worked with Japanese companies and universities for over two decades, I find it particularly hard not to giggle my way through The Wolverine and movies like it, especially when the following cliches are trotted out, yet again:

A typical working day in a Japanese company as the West imagines it.

A typical working day in a Japanese company as the West imagines it.

Japanese Businessmen are all Corporate Samurai

Ieyasu Tokugawa unified Japan in 1600 and exerted his power over the other feudal lords by making them very poor. Over the next three hundred years the samurai class turned into underpaid administrators, clerks and bureaucrats. Think about that for a second – they became civil servants, like the people who send out demands for tax, give you permission to build an extension to your garage or ban hanging baskets in town centres because they might fall on shoppers’ heads. In 1876 samurai were even forbidden to carry swords, which shows you how much power they had in early modern Japan. The idea that Tokyo salarymen carry an unbroken tradition of feudal loyalty from the medieval period is as ridiculous as saying I still hold to the chivalric ideals of my ancestor Sir Reginald De Colwic (c. 1157). Japanese corporate bosses do not, on the whole, keep entire suits of armour in their boardrooms, any more than I have a chain mail vest in my sock drawer, or a two-handed bastard sword in the cupboard. Japanese salarymen are overworked and harassed middle-class blokes with deadlines, car loans and grumpy managers, not über warriors ready to charge around kicking paper screens down in spectacular sword melees. Which brings me on to…

A real Japanese office. Notice the two ninja cunningly disguised as a wastepaper basket and bag.

A real Japanese office. Notice the two ninja cunningly disguised as a wastepaper basket and bag.

A Japanese Sword is the Mystical Soul of its Owner, forged by Master Craftsmen.

The first problem with Japanese swords is that they are long, very sharp and you need quite a bit of space to wield one. Unlike Western fencing, which largely consists of short jabbing movements with a pointed blade, Japanese swordplay involves waving the thing around with two hands and leaping all over the place while yelling the name of the part of the body you’re about to stick it in. Urban Japan is very cramped, and in many homes you can touch both walls by standing in the middle of the room with your arms stretched out.  Unless you are in a dojo or a big field you are likely to end up with the weapon stuck in the ceiling, walls or floor, or half a dozen people who got in the way. Japanese swords are nice, if you are into that kind of thing, but not the major core of Japanese culture films like Kill Bill and The Wolverine would have us believe. The Tokyo Sword Museum is the size of a big garage, but once you’ve looked at your twentieth bit of curved metal with a wavy pattern on it gets a bit dull, and I only ever saw the occasionally bored looking school party when I visited. The Yakuza sometimes break out swords because they are more frightening than a gun, but even they admit that they are a bugger to use in the cramped corridors of a rival gang’s den (in fact Yakuza offices are designed with very narrow passageways precisely to make it hard for topless tattooed Ken Takakura wannabees to get beyond the lift without being shot). Japanese swords can safely be filed under the ‘more romantic nonsense for gullible foreigners’ sign.

Rira Fukushima prepares to take out the light fittings, TV, air-con and family parrot in her 2 metre square apartment.

Rira Fukushima prepares to take out the light fittings, TV, air-con and family parrot in her 2 metre square Tokyo apartment.

Get out the Ninja

If the films are anything to go by if you have a problem with a rival dynasty or another corporation has undercut you all you need to do is Dial-a-Ninja and hundreds of black clad shadow warriors will pour over the rooftops hurling interesting home made bombs around like a violent version of Cirque Du Soleil. I never once came across anything to do with ninja in my twenty years dealing with Japan (Aha, you say, that’s because they melt into the shadows like the cunningly invisible assassins they are). The historical problem with ninja is that they were only good for one mission, at the end of which they killed themselves to protect the identity of their employer. The most famous ninja hid in a toilet all day so he could stab a lord up the bum, hardly exciting and romantic. It was never a particularly glamorous calling, despite the cool gear, and recruitment was always a problem. Yet Gaijin love ninja for some reason, and Japan is happy to feed this strange obsession.

Hugh Jackman closely avoids getting a sword up the bum.

Hugh Jackman closely avoids getting a sword up the bum.

All Japanese are Martial Arts Experts.

I studied Aikido at the world centre for Aikido in Tokyo for a year and every class consisted of 50% French (don’t ask me why), 20% other foreigners (including that bastard Miguel from Barcelona who nearly twisted my arm off) and one or two Japanese blokes. Martial arts are hard and you have to train for years, hence of little interest to disaffected, idle Japanese youth of today. Furthermore, in one of the most peaceful societies in the world there’s not a lot of call for close combat skills. The biggest hobby for my Japanese friends seems to be playing musical instruments and they are brilliant with the flute, violin etc. Martial arts are popular with Gaijin who want to be more Japanese than the Japanese. To the average Japanese twenty-something, martial arts have all the appeal of Morris Dancing over here. Admittedly the sight of a weirdly sexy Japanese model in stripy stockings and a black miniskirt whaling the crap out of ninja (who else?) makes for good viewing but now we really are in the fairy-tale realm of Sailor Moon.

Japan is ultra hi-tech society where the future is now!

OK – the Japanese love gadgets and are massive smartphone users, but that’s about it. Go into any Japanese office and you’ll be hit by the mountains of paper forms surrounding the computers. PC use came to the country later than in the West, simply because it was only from the late 1980s that computers were powerful enough to handle the thousands of Chinese characters needed for basic word processing. The vast majority of school classrooms use chalk and blackboard, and are heated by kerosene stoves. People sign the countless documents that cross their path with the same wooden seals used since medieval times. The most impressive sight is when you take money out of a bank or visit a post office. The teller works out the sum on a calculator, and then uses a wooden abacus to double check the machine got it right. Futuristic hi-tech exists in isolated pockets, and usually at the level of personal use, but as a whole Japan is a surprisingly lo-tech country.

One of the funniest comedies ever to hit Japan - Sean Connery in Rising Sun

One of the funniest comedies ever to hit Japan – Sean Connery in Rising Sun

and finally … Yakuza

Yakuza are brainless thugs. They like to think of themselves as champions of the commoners vs. corrupt politicians and much was made of the fact they were first on the street handing out food in the wake of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. In reality they rely on extortion, prostitution and peddling Class B drugs. They operate out of Estate Agents, have their own business cards and publish magazines containing poems about what a hard life they have. The police tolerate them because organised villainy is preferable to anarchy, but the rest of Japan is increasingly less accommodating and the Yakuza are on the retreat as local residents associations go on the attack, and they fall apart from their own in-feuding. Yes, the Yakuza’s biggest enemy is the middle-aged Japanese woman, so fearsome they even have a comic series dedicated to them. Yakuza rarely go international because, like most Japanese, they struggle with foreign languages and find themselves up against criminals from far less comfortable and accommodating societies like Russia and China who happily have them for breakfast. Finally re. Yakuza with fingers missing. They cut their finger ends off when they make a mistake, so the gangsters with lopped digits are the ones who are, quite frankly, a bit useless.

Revisiting Battle Royale

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In last week’s post Jane Dougherty raised the interesting question as to whether modern Young Adult fantasy sanitises the world for its readers, serving them the illusory comfort of simplistic ideas of good and evil over which teens can triumph, as opposed to the more complex banal institutional horrors that characterise the 20th and 21st centuries. She mentioned The Hunger Games as one example of an illusory and reassuringly anodyne view of the world concealed under superficial grittiness, and that got me thinking of the Japanese movie Battle Royale (2000).

There’s already been plenty of debate about whether The Hunger Games is a copy of the Japanese movie, (and novel by Koushun Takami) and I don’t want to get sucked into that argument here. What is interesting about the first film is not so much the blood and gore, but its fascinating portrayal of the social and cultural issues that Japan faced after its economic bubble burst in the 1990s, and the impact the economic crisis had on the relationship between the young and the old. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, in an unspecified near future Japan, classes of high school kids are kidnapped and forced to fight each other on a zoned island. Each child is given a back pack with survival rations and a random weapon, which could anything from a submachine gun to a frying pan. They also wear exploding collars to prevent them straying into forbidden zones or trying to escape the island. They fight it out amongst themselves, overseen by Takeshi Kitano‘s tragically world weary teacher.

Winner of the previous game of Battle Royale

Winner of the previous game of Battle Royale

The film caused ructions when it first came out, and questions were raised in the Japanese parliament about the levels of violence in the movie. By Japanese film standards it’s no worse than, say, the Lone Wolf and Child series, but the fact that it was high school kids seeing each other off with machine guns, crossbows and sickles touched a nerve for reasons that went beyond the copious amounts of ketchup sprayed around the sets. A number of high profile cases of kids killing each other in real life pointed to a deep malaise in society’s treatment of youngsters, and the pressures it subjected them to. Battle Royale seemed to be rubbing politicians’ faces into an issue they didn’t want to face.

classphoto

Japan possesses a very rigid hierarchical society which stood it in pretty good stead until the 1990s. The life path for a kid was mapped out to the nth degree – reasonably pleasant elementary education, sheer hell at high school (and at cram schools in the evening) swotting for university entrance exams, four years holiday at university itself, then a job for life in a giant corporate. Stifling conformity and obeisance to one’s superiors was worth it for the security and overwhelming sense of belonging to what can feel, at times, like a family of 120 million relatives. But then it all fell apart. Bad loans based on ludicrously inflated property prices came home to roost in the 1990s and the delicate framework of deals, complicity and back-scratching erected by the government, business and Yakuza (Japanese mafia) came tumbling down on top of the heads of the ordinary citizens.

Middle aged corporate workers started losing their jobs, the economy drifted into nearly two decades of stagflation and many young people began to realise the dream they’d been sold (study and get into a good university to secure your future) was a mendacious nightmare they couldn’t escape from. In the film the hero’s father loses his job and commits suicide, leaving his body draped in toilet roll covered in the word ganbaru (used all the time in Japan, it means ‘try hard’, ‘good luck’ and ‘please put up with it’). Another symptom of youngsters collapsing under societal pressure was the rise of the Hikikomori (literally ‘hiding away’), young men who locked themselves in their rooms for years, refusing to engage with society at all, while long-suffering mum pushed their meals under the door. Reports of children murdering their parents, and each other, in extreme violent rages suggested that the combination of intense social pressure to conform but with no guaranteed reward was creating a highly toxic situation.

The message on the board reads 'Today we're all skipping class'

The message on the board reads ‘Today we’re all skipping class’

Battle Royale shows a society in denial hysterically clinging onto the very institutions that cause the problems in the first place, by shifting the blame onto its main victims – the kids. The most interesting parts of the film are the scenes that play out the dynamics of a typical Japanese school room to a grotesque degree. The ‘lesson’ at the start of the game, when the kids are forced to watch a childishly patronising video describing what’s going to happen to them, is spot-on in its recreation of the relationship between fractious kids and a teacher on autopilot. Having spent twenty years working in and with the Japanese education system I can vouch for the authenticity of the scene (apart from the knife-throwing and exploding necks).

Hilarious send up of NHK TV for kids as hysterically cute 'older sister' explains how to kill your schoolmates.

Hilarious send up of NHK TV for kids as hysterically cute ‘older sister’ explains how to kill your schoolmates.

Takeshi Kitano specialises in playing middle-aged men trapped in the system with stunning poignancy, whether it’s a detective plagued with bad luck in Hana-bi, or a petty gangster turned child minder in Kikujiro. In Battle Royale half the time he’s either consigning kids to their deaths, reading out the butcher’s bill in the matter-of-fact tones of a teacher making an announcement about wet playtime, or handing out umbrellas to stop them getting rained on, sharing ice lollies in a bizarre dream sequence or fielding abusive phone calls from his own daughter. At one point the heroine comments that in her dream he always seems sad and lonely. At the end of the film he exercises by himself to a tape in an overgrown playground – a perfect image of the passing of traditional, secure, corporate Japan.

Not the best translation of the original Japanese

Not the best translation of the original Japanese

Behind the spraying blood and high-octane ultra violence Battle Royale is a highly intelligent movie that perfectly captures the sense of unease at a society facing an economic and social crisis that the establishment (largely consisting of old men) refuses to confront, deflecting blame, instead, onto the young, or women or indeed, anyone and everyone else. In the end all are victims, the kids, the parents, Takeshi Kitano’s ultimately lost and desolate teacher, and the drone-like military who go into hilarious and spectacular meltdown when the students briefly manage to hack into the system.

Lack of context, and poor subtitle translation meant that Battle Royale ended up on the shelf marked ‘ultra violent and weird Asian shit’, next to Ichi the Killer and the Korean movie Old Boy (another brilliant satire), waiting to be picked up by ‘edgy’ dilettantes like Quentin Tarantino who were happy to reproduce the stylish mayhem while discarding any message as irrelevant next to the need to be cool. In the wake of The Hunger Games it’s worth watching again as a mordant commentary on an establishment increasingly baffled by the refusal of the young to do what it’s told and ganbaru.

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