Monday, 29 May 2017

So do we read franchises now?

I'm afraid this is one of those posts which kicks off with a question, but is unlikely to go anywhere definite, let alone an answer. The question was sparked off in my mind by a post on io9 about Disney's franchise based future. The writer had just visited the new Avatar theme park at Disney World, and was duly amazed by the huge financial and creative investment in the world of Avatar, James Cameron's SF blockbuster from 2009.
There's no doubt that even if that film has faded away in your mind, or even if you've never seen the film, that a visit to the theme park will be an entertaining experience. Being Disney, it couldn't be anything else, they're the consummate masters of this sort of thing.

Many people have found this news odd, because although Avatar was wildly successful, that was mainly off the back of its spectacle, and it didn't lead to any long lasting cult fandom, such as we see with Star Wars. Well, we are soon(?) going to see the first of 4 (yes, I said FOUR) follow-ups to that first film, and this is the short answer to the question of why Disney have invested so much in the theme park. But one still wrestles with the rationale of this whole process. We're now used to CGI special effects to a degree we never were before, and when all's said and done, the actual story of Avatar was weak and unoriginal. Unless James Cameron has expert help with that for the follow-ups, it's hard to see them being as successful as that startling first film. There's no large fan base to guarantee success.

...Which leads me back to my first question. Do stories matter anymore? Does storytelling, in any medium - print, film, theatre etc.? I would suggest that it really doesn't, and I hate to say such a thing, because we're the poorer for it. However, my position is old-fashioned, isn't it? The cultural landscape is dominated by franchises, just as the commercial landscape is dominated by big brands. Obviously, that's what a franchise is, a brand. Because Disney is Disney, they know how to make money out of this 'property'. Instead of strong stories, I predict the storytelling will be dictated by the need to lead the viewer from one set piece spectacle to the next. Some scenes will have no function beyond providing the material for spin off computer games. We're now consumers, rather than intelligent readers, and we have become inured to digesting things in bites. Snacking, rather than dining, if you like.

And is this true of books as well? That's an awful thought; we like to think that books are the last refuge for more cultivated and intelligent viewers/readers/listeners. But the literary landscape is also dominated by big names and franchises. Any successful book, especially at the popular end of the market, is inevitably followed by another, no matter how little needed it is. As this image suggests, authors have long been guilty of overturning their narratives under commercial pressure - after all, Holmes was supposed to be well and truly dead after falling into the Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty, wasn't he? But at least Conan Doyle could write a good story. My impression is that in the age of the franchise, narrative and plot have become the tortured slaves of commerce.

Friday, 17 February 2017

What If?

It's topical to be thinking about that strange genre known as 'What If?', or Alternative History, when the new BBC TV adaptation of Len Deighton's SS-GB is about to appear. This goes back a long way, I think I read it in the 1980s. Thankfully, I can't remember anything about the plot, since I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Anyone with the slightest interest in history will have mused about a what-if scenario at one time or another. Although you could pick any moment in history at all, it has to be said that certain topics dominate before all else. As SS-GB exemplifies, what-if? Nazi Germany had won the Second World War is overwhelmingly the most popular. This saddens the hell out of me, because it lends a glamour of the most toxic kind to that dreadful regime. It's hard to understand the fascination, because most people would not have wanted that outcome. PS - SS-GB itself is good; I don't know if it's one of Deighton's best (he wrote The IPCRESS File, Bomber, and much else), but he is one of the very best thriller writers.

A few other topics crop up time and time again. Partly because of my own interests, I've noticed a great deal of what-if? devoted to the US Civil War, and to the possibility of the Southern States winning it. The fact is, inconvenient to many deluded 'romantics', that the Confederacy only ever had a slim-to-non-existent chance of surviving that war. I can, sadly, see what the fascination is: the war brought into sharp definition the South as a distinct society, which if you ignore what is very much the elephant in the room, namely the appalling institution of slavery, has a romantic air flavoured with the chivalry of a mythical past, and yet is extinguished for good only a few years later. If you don't know what I'm alluding to, just watch Gone With The Wind. One example of this sub-genre I've read is The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove. He is, by the way, one of the kings of what-if?, having written a variety of alternative histories, especially about the First and Second World Wars.

What-if? is in my view not just a branch of historical fiction, but actually a cross-over with science fiction. Alternative histories are typically rationalised in some way, by means of some almost Hitchcockian 'macguffin' to explain the different course events take. One Turtledove book, again about the Civil War, depends on a vital message to Robert E. Lee not being intercepted as in reality it was. But in The Guns of the South, it turns out to be a band of far-right Afrikaaner racists which travels back in time to provide the Confederacy with advanced weapons, and so win the war. There are some twists which please modern sensibilities; but with all of these books you can never quite escape a host of dubious moral conceits. Turtledove is very readable, but he is to be read with caution.

Lastly, let's direct our attention to a classic work of fiction, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which is also a current broadcast drama, and highly praised, which is aggravating to me because I'd love to see it but I don't receive the relevant tv channel. Technically, this is a what-if?, another one featuring a world in which the Axis won the Second World War. And yet, it's something rather different, something which amongst other things examines perceptions of these alternative histories. Philip K. Dick was one of the truly great science fiction writers, a great writer full stop, and this may have been his best known book. From the SF point of view, alternative histories are really takes on themes of multiple or parallel universes. To sign off this piece, I'd just like to say that from my reader's point of view, I wish authors would give WW2 and the US Civil War a rest, and look at some other sudden swerves in history. How about a fiction in which the 2016 US election was not won by a serious politician but an insane demagogue... Whoops.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Secret

In the usual course of setting each other themes or challenges, 'The Secret' was recently suggested. Well, this may or may not spark more such offerings on this blog, but here's one example, written as a synopsis. You could regard this as a bite-sized, 'one minute story' :)

In the Second World War, a squad of marines on a special mission in SE Asia come across the camp they have targeted, after a long struggle through dense jungle. From a covert position, they witness a group of Japanese officers in conference over regional maps. Messages are being written and passed to junior officers. The senior officers are frustrated and frequently take it out on those around them. At a climactic point, a lieutenant brings a message back and is viciously slapped. The colonel berates him and writes a new message, savagely gesturing at it. Acting on instinct, the Americans work their way round to what seems to be the communications tent, seeing piles of messages spiked next to the radio equipment. The nervous lieutenant reappears, bearing a message to take back to the colonel. He is tripped up and the message is snatched. After another long and arduous trek through torrid and near impassable vegetation, picking off countless leeches etc., they arrive back behind their lines. The vital message is handed over. They collapse on bunks, exhausted, to recuperate. In due course their own captain returns with the now translated message in his hand. “Uh guys, well the thing is this. Yes, there’s a lot of words here but they’re just covering their asses. Basically, it’s the field kitchen, explaining that they have run out of tea.”

Monday, 13 February 2017

A new look, if you like

I nearly called this, 'A New Dawn', but dawn isn't very evident in this background image is it? Whether this new look will pass muster I don't know, but perhaps it reflects the dark or otherworldly themes we've often touched on - or wholeheartedly embraced! - in our writing. Not that we are all into tales of the supernatural, let alone horror fiction. But to a greater or lesser degree we do seem to be drawn to areas where reality bleeds into something else. Is that pretentious? Probably :)  If you think about it, this is the natural state of fiction anyway. In simply inventing a plot, employing a narrative running to a conclusion, you're already bending away from reality. But we're human, and we can't help imposing patterns on things.

Let's try another tack. The times are dark, and one's writing can't help but reflect that. In fact, recent shifts in the historical tides could well make one feel we live in the end of times. Let us all wallow in the bleak... or go to the other extreme, and let hope shine a light.

To put it another way, so so necessarily after all that waffle, we may actually be about to embark on producing another collection of our fiction. It has been a long while! And some of us have been 'talking a good match' for far too long. *cough* It'll be interesting to see if this blog site livens up at all...

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Free Short Story March 2016

The Girl on the Mountain


Anyone traveling from Danfield to Morson has a choice of route. The shorter way, over the mountain, faces the traveller with an immediate and severe acclivity which invariably inclines him to  the longer and much less scenic option, along the highway out towards Eddisburg, and the gentler gradient of the Snake River valley. 
      Uncle Jess was not so readily dissuaded. For him and for my younger self each ascent marked  the commencement of a journey of adventure.  We made it on more occasions than I can recall during my weeks of vacation at Morson. His ageing Dodge truck did not make the climb exactly easily, but it did so with assuredness and plenty of noise. The potent growl of the two-hundred-and-eighteen-cubic-inch engine, the six-cylinder staccato of its exhaust echoing back from the canyon walls, and the furious rumbling of the uneven road beneath the wheels attested its potency. 
      The well-practised technique was to hit the bottom of the rise at full speed and to shift down a couple of gears at just the right moments whilst maintaining maximum impulsion. If you knew the way well enough - and we did - and were ready to take a few liberties with the wrong side of the highway, cutting corners, straightening out the curves and not hitting the brakes too often, then those initial two gear shifts were the only ones you would ever need. 
      The thrill of the ascent was only the start of it. Here and there the tumbling torrent of the Hammerhead River roared beside us, turquoise and foaming white, cascading ever downwards with purpose equal to our own, cutting through the polychromatic strata of the timeless rocks. 
      Fifteen minutes of a steady ninety-horsepower brought us to what would pass for the end of a blind canyon. Here the road looped back,  crossing first the boiling rapids below the spectacular Hammerhead Fall, then spiralling upwards along the opposite side of the valley onto a flimsy-looking yet substantial steel trestle bridge that conveyed it at some considerable elevation back across the gorge and its earlier self, delivering it neatly amongst the mine workings to which the road and the bridge owed their existence. 
      The bridge afforded breathtaking views: to the right a panorama of the waterfall again, and its turbulent progeny; to the left the wild forest beyond Danfield, stretching in misty green to the horizon. They say that on a clear day you can see to the Blueback Mountains from here, but I have to declare that in all my years of making the journey, I never saw them. 
      The mine workings, abuzz with industry for my earlier visits, fell silent for the later ones: abandoned and derelict. Activity was brief, if intense. 
      After that the road was less steep for a half-mile or so, then it levelled out completely. Uncle Jess could slip the Dodge into top gear and the going was suddenly easier. 
      Up here was a different world. The severe narrow gorge gave way to the wide, level, rock-strewn floor of the upper valley. The churning, tumbling and turbid torrent was now a lazy gentle stream that tripped daintily over pebbles and glinted and sparkled in the sunshine. The 'new road' became the 'old road' - little more than a gravel-covered track that marked our progress with clouds of white dust swirling and hanging in the air behind us. 
      Shrubs and trees were scarce indeed, except where they delineated the course of the meandering stream: abundant where they were visible. A little childish imagination would have us traversing some arid foreign desert, or on the desolate surface of a distant alien planet, yet there was life to be seen on the fifteen-miles or so crossing before the descent through the forest above Morson. Colonies of paddling and wading birds - Uncle Jess knew the names of them all - flourished in those places where the river was slowest and widest, and I guessed fish thrived too. 
      Once we saw a cougar, loping across the road a couple of hundred yards ahead of us. Uncle Jess saw it, though he said it was more likely a large dog or some other animal; cougars had been extinct in those parts for many years, he insisted. Wolves, too. Yet I am sure it was no dog; it's deportment was unmistakably that of a cat, and not a few others had reported seeing the same over the years, asserting their continued presence in such an isolated place. 
      The only building in the upper valley was a house that stood at some distance from the trail, on the opposite side of the river in a wide gulley whose rim formed a wide arc that the road was obliged to follow.  Stone-built with a single storey, a rusty-red roof and a tumbledown timber porch along the front, the house would have appeared unremarkable anywhere else. Here, alone in the wilderness, its incongruity was absolute. 
      The only one I ever saw there was the girl. 
      She was slim and pretty, as far as I could tell from the road, with long black hair the brightest  red dress that swirled and flapped as she moved. She was always dressed the same. 
      Whenever she saw us coming she would jump down from the porch and run to the corner of the house. There she would stand, waving both arms high above her head in greeting, and watch us trundle by. 
      Any passer-by, though few and far between, would surely be privy to the same warm greeting, though I liked to kid myself that I was specially chosen: that she waved only to me. 
      I would wave in reply: in slow and subdued fashion, like some mediaeval monarch acknowledging the crowd from his carriage. I hoped that she saw, and that Uncle Jess did not. I was uncertain of his response to a perceived precocious interest in young ladies. He might disapprove and think ill or me or, worse, make fun and tease me. In any event he never mentioned it and neither did I, even when I got to an age when such attention it would be expected. The Gestalt was made, and it stayed. 
      Back home, my thoughts would often stray back to my summers in Morson, especially in the end stages of long and tedious afternoon math lessons when the boredom became too much to bear. My imagination entertained me with fantasies about the girl on the mountain: about how, next time, we would pull in and stop at the little house. She would invite us in for coffee and we would meet her folks, too. She would be called Mary Sue, or some such, and she would be beautiful and kindly and funny. We would hit it off right away, kindred souls destined to be together, and fall in love. The story had many happy endings, in my imagination. 
      Real life moved on. My summer excursions to Morson gave way to more pressing matters: college, qualification and career. In idle moments my Mary Sue was less often in my mind. Six years passed before I ventured to Morson again. 
      Then Uncle Jess broke his leg and the family decided to take turns in helping out. 
      When my week arrived, I took the train to Danfield, collected a hire car and took the mountain road. This time I was resolved to make a stop along the way. 
      I wasn't sure I'd got the right place at first; the house was no longer there. I turned off the road and followed a rough track which I supposed to lead to it, splashing through a wide ford and crawling for a quarter of a mile over undulating and uneven rocky terrain. Eventually I drew up by the very edge of the stream at the spot where I had so many times seen my Mary Sue. 
      All that remained were piles of stones that had once been walls, scraps of indeterminate timber and rusty fragments of roof. A single course of half-buried stones marked the outline of the building, or at least most of it. All around, in such proximity to the life-giving stream, plentiful vegetation, including trees and shrubs,had sprung up, filling the former clearing both inside and outside the building line. From the girth of their trunks it was clear that no dwelling could possibly have stood, nor any inhabitant sojourned here for very many years past. This was a most perplexing realisation. 
      Until that moment I had never seriously considered the possibility of the existence of supernatural apparitions. Yet what other explanation could there be apart from the entirely less appealing one of calling into question of my soundness of mind? This mystery was never going to sit easily with me.
...to be continued.