Posts Tagged ‘TV’

Just one of many images of the apocalypse.

Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.

Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.

I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.

As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.

What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?

And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.

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I recently decided to watch more anime, and inspired by an Idea Channel episode, I chose Attack on Titan. It’s a show that probably deserves two reviews, so here we go…

It’s All About Style

Attack on Titan is the weirdest and most fascinating thing I’ve watched in years. Set in a fantasy landscape based on a Japanese perspective of 19th century Europe, it’s a story of survival. For a hundred years humanity has been contained within a vast walled city, threatened from the outside by the Titans, monstrous giants who eat people for fun. When the first of the city’s three rings of walls is breached, a group of young people are propelled into the armed forces fighting for humanity, and a slowly unravelling plot to find out what’s behind the Titans.

I love the imagination of this setting. The towering walls and lumbering giants give it a sense of the epic and the unreal. The soldiers use gas-fired grappling wires to hurtle through the air and attack the vulnerable necks of the Titans. The fundamentals of how this war is fought are like nothing else I’ve seen. Like most fantasy, they look nonsensical if you take a step back, but they’ve been thought through in detail and are so different that I was fascinated. They also allow for some immensely cool and unusual action sequences.

This bonkers style is what I love about Attack on Titan.

No, Wait, It’s All About Substance

Attack on Titan is the deepest, darkest exploration of the horrors of war I’ve ever seen in fantasy. Set in a civilisation on the brink of extinction, it sees a group of young people propelled into the armed forces, struggling to cope with the traumas of that life. They see friends eaten by monsters, civilians crushed beneath falling buildings, superiors turning to cowards or running out of control. They face their own rage, depression and even cowardice in the face of war. Their lives have no neat answers – sometimes friends die in battle without them ever learning why or how. In Attack on Titan, war really is hell.

What’s extraordinary is how compelling this is. The absurdity of the war they’re fighting – swinging on wires as they try to fight monsters – only makes the trauma more stunning and realistic by contrast. It makes the reactions and transformations of the characters into something that left me too stunned.

Dammit, Now I Have to Wait

I watched the whole of the first season of Attack on Titan on Netflix, then discovered that the next series won’t even be on TV until 2016. It’s going to be a long, impatient wait, because bizarre as this is, bewildering as some people will find it, I thought it was an extraordinary show, both in its style and its substance.

I don’t know if William Shakespeare really is the most influential writer in literary history. As someone who grew up Britain, it feels like it. And within my cultural experience, he’s certainly the writer that others lean on the most, borrowing openly from his work to make connections with an audience.

As both a reader and a writer, I find it interesting to look at two different ways in which creators approach this – by adopting the structure of Shakespeare’s plots, or by dressing up in their trappings.

Hamlet on Motorbikes – Sons of Anarchy

On its surface, the TV show Sons of Anarchy has a very modern plot. Its tale of a biker gang struggling against the unstoppable tide of change, full of drug deals, arms shipments and roaring engines, is as 21st century as you can get. But you don’t have to dig deep to see something older in there.

Especially in its early seasons, Sons of Anarchy was a full-on tribute to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in for good measure. The protagonist Jax is the son of the deceased John Teller, founding leader of the Sons of Anarchy motorbike gang, a gang who rule their local community in a thoroughly medieval manner. His mother Gemma is married to the current leader of the gang, who was responsible for John’s death, while John’s diaries fill in the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The Macbeth angle comes from Gemma, egging her husband on to ever darker deeds in the name of ambition.

Using these familiar roles and conflicts gives the show a sense of depth and darkness. Hamlet and Macbeth are both classics for a reason – they presented characters who were deeply troubling and yet deeply convincing. They turned familiar relationships, particularly family relationship, on their head. This is unsettling and yet fascinating to watch. How will Hamlet/Jax tackle the contradiction between familial love and a quest for vengeance? Will Lady Macbeth/Gemma ever face the consequences of her own ruinous actions?

Sons of Anarchy borrows its structure from Shakespeare, and makes some open nods to that source, but it doesn’t wear the outward trappings of the bard’s plays. For that, we can look at a very different story.

Macbeth Made Funny – Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Wyrd Sisters was one of Pratchett’s early Discworld books – not the first few unrefined works, but the ones where he was getting into his stride as a humourist, a humanist and a storyteller. It’s the story of three witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – as they come into conflict with a king who has, Macbeth-style, murdered his predecessor to take the throne. Where Sons of Anarchy is dark and brooding, Wyrd Sisters is funny and often light-hearted, though with a serious sense of justice at its core.

Again, the two main Shakespearean influences on display are Hamlet and Macbeth. We get the royal usurpers, one of whom can’t get the blood from his hands; the victim’s ghost seeking justice, as in both plays; the witches of Macbeth‘s most-quoted scene; the use of a play to bring out the truth as in Hamlet; and many more little references. But the underlying plot twists and inverts Shakespeare rather than following his beats. The references are there to provide humour rather than depth, and to let Pratchett make a point about who we see as heroes.

Different Approaches, Different Uses

These different ways of borrowing from Shakespeare clearly have different uses. The Sons of Anarchy approach works whether or not your audience know the plays. In fact not knowing them may help – a friend of mine was put off by the show’s knowing winks toward its sources. While Wyrd Sisters works as a story whether or not you know your Shakespeare, the references to the bard have no value if you don’t. They are jokes about Shakespeare, rather than a drama told using his tools.

So if you’re thinking of using Shakespeare in your writing, which approach will work best? That depends on what effect you’re after.

Borrowing the trappings Pratchett-style lets you share jokes with readers who know Shakespeare – which is probably most readers, to some extent at least. It creates a bond between you and those readers, lets them feel smart for being in on the jokes, but can disruptive immersion in the story by reminding you that it is a story in a long line of stories. It works best for humour.

Borrowing the plot Sons of Anarchy-style lets you borrow the darkness that oozes from Shakespeare’s dramatic works. It can help to create something thoroughly immersive, though it creates a risk that the audience will realise the connection partway through, again disrupting the experience.

Borrowing from any source has its uses and its risks. But when the source is as good as Shakespeare, his popularity adds to the potential for triumph or disaster.

Do you have any opinions on who has borrowed well or badly from Shakespeare, or from other sources? Have you tried it in your own writing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

It’s MacGyver in space! Watch him make a bomb out of a battery and some space whale mucus.

I’ve recently started watching Stargate SG1, and I’m getting annoyed. It seems like the writers have skipped the best part.

At the start of the series, exploring other planets isn’t yet a thing. Having found portals to other worlds, the US military faced an alien species that could conquer the world, and so retreated to safety. Kurt Russell has magically turned into MacGyver. Nothing much has happened since.

The first episode is spent re-establishing the need to use the stargates. The second shows the first time something bad comes back through. The military are just starting to turn stargate exploration into a thing, and then suddenly, from episode three onwards, everything’s in place. There are stargate teams 1 through 364. Some of them have been on other planets for months. The characters crack jokes about the time they visited the planet of hats. The Star Trek style planet of the week antics have begun.

You know what I want to see? I want to see the bit that’s missing after episode 2. I want to see the challenges of those first tentative steps, as the Stargate teams try to work out whether exploration is even a good idea. They should face the challenges of doing dangerous work as a new governmental organisation – under-supplied, with endless disputes about their purpose and hierarchy, no-one even knowing yet how best to train the teams for this completely unprecedented job that they’re doing. We should see them adjusting to the lifestyle, to the secrets, to the dangers and uncertainties. The conflicting interests of the military and the scientists should be a huge thing, their support from government erratic, even as they risk their lives every day exploring the universe. Maybe there’d be disputes over whether this should even be a government venture, as private companies try to stick their oar in.

But no. By episode three everyone’s acting like seasoned pros, the scientist is shooting his gun straight, and the base commander has a direct line to the president. Half the challenges of their situation are gone.

I’m not saying that I want to watch Stargate: Months of Bureaucracy, but I wish they’d taken the opportunity to explore those complications, even as they took their weekly trip to the planet of hats.

The shows we imagine are often better than the reality. Remember when Star Trek: The Next Generation ran a plotline about terrorists/freedom fighters living in a disputed border region? Those guys would have made a fascinating show, full of moral complexities, shifting loyalties, and characters struggling to enact their ideals. Instead we got Voyager, and disappointment.

Maybe I’ll just have to write those stories for myself. Or imagine them as I fall asleep at night, like I did when I was a kid. But maybe one day, if I try really hard, you’ll all get to watch MacGyver: Space Terrorist.

Anybody else have ideas for the best things we should have seen in sci-fi shows but didn’t? Tell me your awesome ideas in the comments.

The ending is one of the most important parts of any story. Sure, the beginning is what hooks readers, but the ending is what shapes their thoughts and feelings after they finish your work, and so colours their memories of the rest. It determines whether a story is satisfying through the payoff it provides, and makes a huge difference to whether readers, viewers and listeners come back for more.

The ending was the closest to a bum note for me in reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. Without spoiling it, I think it’s safe to say that all the pieces are put in place properly, and in that sense the ending is earned. But there’s a huge shift of tone for the climactic sequence that’s at odds with the rest of the book. It’s like the author changed genres slightly to get the results, rather than sticking with the Austen-style social drama that had dominated to that point, and that disappointed me. I like genre mash-ups, but I also like endings that fit the books, and this one didn’t quite. It wasn’t so awful I won’t read more, in fact I enjoyed the book so much I’m already reading the sequel, but still, it was a shame.

I’m also aware that the ending of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother really divided people. I thought it was great, fitted the story and said some things about love and life that I don’t expect from a mainstream sitcom. Others thought it took an easy option. If you don’t mind the spoilers, this video from the excellent PBS Idea Channel looks at it in more depth:

 

My current freelance ghost writing is also raising some questions for me about endings. I’m working on a series of books, and the plot I’ve been given involves each book setting up questions for the next. But there’s a delicate balance to be struck between making readers want more and leaving them feeling like they got closure. How I pace the final story beats of each book is shaped a lot by that.

Which stories do you think got the endings right, and why? Which got them wrong? Share your thoughts below, help me refine my own thinking.

And as ever, if you’d like to read more from me, you can find out about my ebooks here, including some of the glowing things people have said about them in reviews.

Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Day after day, I’m currently writing science fiction with a grim setting. And I’m enjoying it. I’ve also enjoyed reading and watching quite a lot of science fiction that has that darkness to  it. The harrowing dystopia of the The Hunger Games. The post-apocalyptic teen angst of The 100. Hell, I’m still a fan of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting, even though I haven’t played or read anything set in it in years.

It seems almost perverse to take pleasure in such dark futures. After all, this is science fiction, a form designed to show the amazing and wondrous things that the future could hold. So why do we do it to ourselves? Do we find hope in seeing people struggle against the darkness? Do we find failed futures more convincing? Do they act as a warning? Is it just easier to create conflict that way?

It genuinely perplexes me. There are so many potential explanations it’s hard to work out which are relevant, never mind common for those creating and experiencing this sort of fiction. So I’ll ask – do you enjoy dark science fiction, the stuff where bleakness plays a larger part in the setting than hope? And what about it appeals to you?

That's my Tardis, it's paintwork is blue!

That’s my Tardis, its paintwork is blue!

Have you ever read the That’s Not My… books? They’re for really little kids. They’re made of cardboard and have simple yet delightful pictures with textured areas for the kids to touch. Each one follows the same rhythm, so that for That’s Not My Dog the first page might read

That’s not my dog, his nose is too shiny [cue picture of dog with smooth shiny nose to touch]

Then the next is

That’s not my dog, his coat is too fluffy [again with a cute cartoon dog, and this time with soft strokeable fur – watch a toddler with one of these books, they’ll spend forever pawing at the furry pages, tiny pink deviants that they are]

And so on until the right dog is found. Or the right dragon, or pirate, or penguin, or whatever – seriously, these books are like kiddy crack, and the dealers are flooding the market with great product.

But you know what’s really weird? No, it’s not a thirty-six-year-old fantasy writer getting excited over That’s Not My Penguin, though that would be a good guess. What’s really weird is that I keep seeing those same books quoted in online discussions, and the people quoting them aren’t even getting it right.

Take Doctor Who. Pretty much everybody loves Doctor Who, in at least one of the show’s many incarnations. And it’s nice that people want to discuss which ones they like. So I could point at an RTD-era season finale and say ‘that’s not my Doctor Who, the resolution is too angsty’. I don’t do that, because it doesn’t give people much to work with as a conversation point, but other people seem to want to, they’ve clearly read their That’s Not My, and they’re ready to debate.

But they keep quoting it wrong. They miss out the ‘my’. So instead of saying ‘That’s not my Doctor Who’ they say ‘That’s not Doctor Who’, which is of course clearly nonsense. Any toddler with a fluffy dog to stroke could tell them that. Whether it’s Doctor Who or Star Trek or James Bond or the Marvel Movie Universe or whatever, the version you’re seeing, the version that’s not to your tastes, clearly is that thing. What’s more, it’s somebody else’s beloved version of that thing. Saying that it isn’t would just be kind of rude and belligerent.

Which is why it’s such a shame that people forget the vital ‘my’, which makes clear that they understand that they’re just voicing a perfectly valid opinion, and not trying to be a jerk to others.

I can enjoy my shiny-beaked penguin, even knowing that the less wonderful fluffy-bellied one is on the next page. I can enjoy Moffat’s first clever use of the weeping angels, even knowing that I’d get annoyed at what he did with them later. I can like both Chris Pine Kirk and William Shatner Kirk. And whether I like them or not, they’re all a penguin, or Doctor Who, or Star Trek, or whatever.

They’re just not my penguin.