CULTURAL BONES PART TWO…
It is odd to read that some writers began short stories or were hugely invested in telling stories from a young age. So when I think back and then think about other authors who say this, I assume that their stuff is far more refined and better than anything I might yet achieve. So why start in the first place? I thought about way back when between the ages of 15 to about 21. These are some fast paced times of change for anyone I can tell thee. One minute your’e sat on the z x spectrum playing manic miner and the next it’s the mega drive with streets of rage 2. Okay so more happened than that, I mean those were the winter months. So to be fair I wasn’t one for the books or the learning because there were better things to do right. I lived on a steep hill in Wales back then where the Friends and I played badminton or with a Rugby ball. We even used to chew up Welsh cakes (the welsh have their own cakes) and throw the pulp at each other, or cow pats or frozen oranges; the appearance of dirty Sanchez did not surprise me one bit. All amusing and quite puzzling for one of my friends neighbours who had a said frozen death fruit through his car windscreen. As though a cat burglar had used a laser scalpel to cut a perfect hole in the front window of his car ‘Err, listen to me now’ the man said in a Welsh tone of aggression. ‘I found this Orange on the back seat of my car which I’m sure went through my car wind screen you see right’ (everyone said right at the end of everything back then to my parents annoyance) Of course the angry neighbour was perplexed due to the orange being at this time in an unfrozen state. Soft and squishy was the vandalising fruit. What witch craft was this? What sorcery? You could see him thinking, unable to rationalise that the fruit may have done such damage in a solid state…now how does soft liquid based fruit in skin become more solid? He couldn’t prove a thing dammit!
Some might remember how it was in primitive times. No mobile, no emails, face book or twitter. Snap Chat? I’m in my thirties and I still wonder what the point to most of it is. You go to town: everyone knew the rule, even nation wide that you went to Woolworth’s in order to meet the friends via a previously arranged time slot. If you wanted to meet on the estate you went and knocked on doors until everyone was gathered for a night of totally enjoyable nothingness.
Amongst all this wasted time and generally not watching the television, ever, there was the good old Sunday morning before you went out to do more of nothing with the youth of the estate. Marmite on toast and a cup of tea while the Waltons or Planet of the Apes was on S4C (That’s channel four in Wales and just before channel five kicked off) Then something happened. I’d seen Star wars..who the hell hadn’t. I watched star trek on BBC2 on the occasional evening. But one Sunday there appeared something quite odd that had me hooked until the end. It was the ahead of its time, strangely cheap Babylon 5. Now some people love this tv series and why not. The movie Terminator 2 and a few others used the primitive CGI to great effect and so B5 thought it cost effective if not very new age effective to use the same type of technology to depict human & alien craft in action.
Strange and complex was this SC FI. Long running stories cut across many episodes and all leading to great season finales or season openers that would answer many questions and resolve brilliant cliff hangers. At the time I think even back then that the characters were okay, more human then alien are the ways these programmes tend to go. All the make up and the cultural differences of the Ambassadors of various worlds were just an extension of humanity. Isn’t that how Sci Fi goes?
One aspect of this programme, the real food for thought were the ancient ones. Yes that is what older races were called. Let me explain to those who never saw B5. There were a number of races in the milky way and they all saw fit to send their ambassadors to the Babylon 5 space station in order to represent their home worlds. Negotiations, meetings, trade etc etc, all under the mediation of, well you guessed it, the best species in the whole Universe, Human Beings. Interesting but nothing peaked the interest more than the Vorlons. A mysterious alien species that were older than old; the first ones. Older than dinosaurs, older than the devil, but wait, now as usual we move into religious territory. Why should I not on a Sunday morning be introduced to the notion of alien astronauts or cosmonauts depending on which side your’e on (We’ll get back to Russia v America later in later blogs). A big clunky suit as though the puppeteer actor underneath were about to fall over, the Vorlon, who cares what its name was, walked around in an environment suit for it could not breathe air. Eventually and after a few seasons of the lead characters doing this and that, the Dr character that I hated, the first Captain that sounded like a 1950’s film noir cast off as though every word he would utter would be a simile….Later to be replaced with a cowboy and western actor and Tron legend, err tron himself. I say eventually the Vorlon revealed itself to be what everyone decided was an angel. Not so po faced was the way such a reveal was made. When everyone saw the bright light leave the confines of the environment suit each species saw their own version of themselves as said angel or figure for good; we all, including aliens had something in common. Then amongst all this we got the coming of the Shadows!
For me, and above all this was the first time I can say that something inspired me to really have a think about creating a story. The shadows, the enemy ships that came from a time when Vorlon’s were young and they fought for all the younger species…me and you when we were you know apes or germs or something. Organics! ‘They grew their ships for war and destruction’ Now to be told that these things are alive, these shadow ships with great big black spooky aquatic looking stabby creepy….these things are alive. As a young teenager who hadn’t been paying attention in biology or physics, I was suddenly very interested. Stonger than any construction any of the other species had managed, the cell of any living being could be made stronger than metal or any other contrived alloy etc. To me, the whole premise that these ancient ones seemed as though they showed up as an adult in a kids playground wondering why no one was talking about politics. It was all about the bam that we were supposed to be leading up to. Of course, I think, that this side of things never really happened to the extent that I had imagined it should of could of would of etc. Not enough CGI power or budget or something led away from the carnage that you thought might happen. Then again, the main theme of B5 was to have all races unite, a metaphor for all countries on Earth to put aside their differences in order to fight for a better day, a better way. Not bad, and I think such a theme is useful for many a story to come regardless of genre or format…well, we are still blowing each other up aren’t we?! Oh and these shadow creatures/ships were unlike anything else before as far as I could tell, to the point that when humanity dug up a shadow ship on Mars that had been there for millennia I thought, yes indeed, that was, I found out when I finally began digesting books, an Arthur C Clarke type moment and quite unnerving.
Source, sauce, lubricating the idea box noggin at the top of the spinal rod can be quite the thing over time and through osmosis. What is it that on a frequent basis, that aesthetic of Sci fi do we seem to love about the rectangular ships and the same soldiers with guns. James Cameron with Aliens, Halo the xbox video game, Babylon 5. Battle Star Galactica the new series had us watching the inner workings and culture of such a ship. Not so much parallelepiped but still, there we were in the shower rooms, the bridge and other places that were futuristic, archaic, grubby and metal. George Lucas had a lot to answer for when he added dents, rust and grime to his technology in star wars. It might be as though we can relate to the cigars and ashtrays on board a starship than it being well hoovered and spotless…Trekkies aside of course. But, I my self like all of the above in Sci fi. Not so much enterprise but instead, a sort of displacement of today’s military ways and plop them into the great hulking un-manoeuvrable ships that use FTL engines or portals of whatever kind to get from a -z. Walking through a Star gate? Yes I do likes a bit of star gate. But I want the future guns and all that strange ammo that come from some sort of grit and spit. Yes and Star ship troopers should be mentioned. Tongue in cheek depiction of the imperial space war machine and how we all get on board via the propaganda machine of hype, only to get sliced and diced by giant bugs…I might be watching that again and soon!
You can see the resemblance perhaps? in order clockwise: Battle star Galactica, Aliens the movie, Babylon 5 human ship and then finally Halo’s Pillar of Autumn.
Now I don’t condone war or violence and watch the news on a frequent basis wondering and shaking my head in disgust. On the other hand when I read that the American Military have created a fifty calibre sniper round that can be controlled to drift in the right direction in mid air to hit a target, I’m thinking, we want this stuff to protect ourselves, but we shouldn’t need it at all. And who the hell are we fighting and what the hell for? Naive, idealist? Guns and weapons are still fascinating. Anyone who played borderlands will tell you that. Like watching a camp or living room fire, you know what the appeal is, the duality is and you might look on in horror and wonder. But Sci fi is one of the few true formats you can add a gazillion ingredients together from all sources in order to build another story.
So far then.
Rectangular space ships…Check, Guns, rail guns, stampede rifles and turrets…Check…Exotic ammunition with which to inflict terrible and non ethical/moral damage…check. Surreptitious organisations that rule the world…Check. So I wrote something less of human love and romance and wanted to say something about the way in which our world is continually being shaped. Now, around the time I was daydreaming my 80’s style action flick without any real grounding themes to make it worth while of a moral tale. I was beginning to come across Japanese Manga. But like I am with music, I pick the things that say something to me. Akira came on BBC2 one night back in the 90’s and again I saw that the organic, the human being had been modified to become stronger than any technology. Guns and bombs it appeared were no match for people, or in this case a hand full of children. The Japanese sensibility on film making or what we in the west call cartoons are a little different, and has to be said tend to work better than some of the fairytale yin and yang that Hollywood sometimes keep recycling.
Akira and Fist of the North Star…not so much kiddy cartoons.
The Japanese never forget, had one of the worst possible atrocity’s committed against them at the end of World war 2. I’m not getting into arguments here as to the where’s and the why’s and they did or did not deserve it; things are always complicated and the people living and breathing in said places of destruction are the ones who paid the price on that day; never again! In the back of the human sub-concious then, the artists and story tellers or whoever had the post apocalyptic vibe, that something horrible lurking in their culture in their mind for many a story. Fist of the North Star; a man on a mission for good walking the post nuclear war deserts of wherever and fighting the terrible mutant savages that prey on the week and innocent; note that Mad Max is almost the same character and fighting the same kinds of people in the same setting and the same same same…But you better believe I’m off to see Tom Hardy do it all over again in Fury Road. Oh and the lead protagonist in Fist of the North Star was the greatest martial artist ever, who could make people’s heads explode with a single punch…pressure points and all that is the hydraulic bag of flesh of the human being are no match for the well-trained zen energy master Kenshiro. Back to Akira though, it appears that not once, but twice governments tried to build and harness the power of the living human cell and create super beings. The first attempt ended with a nuclear type devastation of Tokyo and without learning a damned thing, they go and do it again with another, except this time the said modified has issues…
So upon seeing all kinds of super human beings, flesh is the ultimate weapon. See Marvel and DC movies surge with mutants galore, unless you go all batman and it’s character and psychological issues where every criminal is sent to an asylum by a man who probably needs just as much counselling. But what of the flesh? Men that run faster than light, telekinesis, skin to steel, and what of Wolverine healing like that; surely the calorific consumption of said healing outweigh the ability itself? But I have a problem here, for in story telling you have to decide what marvel can be accepted regardless of the real or scientific, you need to suspend your level of disbelief and go with the magic. On the other hand as a writer you could go all hard case and justify as much as possible. Trust me, in Version I got the marvel stuff down, but not through magic, there are reasons; a bit of star trek in the universe of Babylon 5 with a marvel comic strip bit. No destiny, no pre-ordained hero’s quest, just flesh vs metal with things going off in all directions….Super beings of an ambiguous nature…check.
Then there was the horror. What if someone who had been watching with utter contempt all of the wars and terror going on. No affiliation to any country, a person with layered perceptions that lead to acts that may not lead to any conclusive resolution. Someone with absolutely no weaknesses or limitations who might roam the place as though death’s apprentice…but there is a twist. Nature Versus Nurture as they say. But I will talk about characterisation another time in another blog.
The funny thing about genetics as a topic, is that it is as mysterious and complex as the universe itself. Crack that information and along with perpetual energy and bobs your uncle…we have utopia where we all live in harmony…err no. John Carpenters the thing came out in the 80’s at the same time as E.T. and it appeared that people wanted the friendly alien, but which one got a prequel due to cult demand? Of course my own story of watching this film stems from when I was perhaps five or six years old. VHS was the frenzy and my nan bless her, had both films on video. She would sit my sisters and I down and tell us to watch a film while she went else where…I recall her, at around the same time, leaving us in the cinema to watch Ghost Busters and going to play bingo across the street. Well, she mixed the tapes up and thought we were in for a treat with E.T. but instead we got, a dog that walks into a kennel that’s head splits open and great tentacles of flesh shoot from its sides piercing the other dogs and killing them; this was no alien of sentimentality. My parents would ask ‘did you enjoy E.T.? No it was horrible I would say. They must have thought the bit where the E.T. brown thing alomot dying in the river bed was a bit harsh. We are firmly into the next area of science fiction here that lends itself to other genres. Remember Dracula was just an evil creature created by dark forces. He was all bout the perverted nature of sexuality and lust that audiences of yesteryear, and at the time were horrified about penetration arrghh! By the time we get to the movie Blade 2 we see that it’s a virus that changes people and even further still with an even more modified vampire with hideous attributes. Alien the movie franchise may be the mother of all these fears of the mucus and flesh invasions. A falic object down the throat, impregnated so that the only outcome is a violent birth via the chest. But in later years as in recently, we get Prometheus where the Microscopic changing the macroscopic is the theme of horror. A team of explorers travel light years to find alien astronauts only to encounter ourselves, albeit ancient human beings that Empire magazine said and I quote “they found Jason Statham”. These big advanced ancient humans are just as clumsy as we are it seems and accidentally killed themselves. How? What is this lethal stupidity they forgot to follow the health and safety guidelines with? It was a biological weapon of organic qualities that changes the genome into some other code. Some say that it wasn’t scary enough. But hang on a moment. Are we that desensitised that we no longer see yet more dualities of the fact that whatever we create for good always gets a negative destructive trial for military purposes. The moral here is that we are more of a danger to ourselves than any other species. A theme that runs throughout both of Ridley Scotts Alien movie triumphs. On and on I could go here, but genetic modification is a theme that will be crucial in my own contrived world of Version.
Back to the film the Thing, is another horror built on the notion of paranoia or loss of trust regarding a malevolent creature that…well not so much spiteful but a force of other worldly intergalactic predator of flesh and information. This was a choice of narrative riding on the back of another terrible affliction of the newly identified HIV or AIDS. No more unprotected sex with strangers for you never knew what nasty disease they might impart. It was the fear of fluids and blood and infection that lent itself on top of the initial Cold War alien spy paranoia of the original version of the movie. So we play with what some might call God’s creations and we get burnt. Zombies used to be caused by Voodoo magic, now it’s a virus. See a pattern emerging here? GM crops and stem cell research, the unlocking of information and yet our nature as a species fails to see the consequences if some choose to use it unwisely. Unlock the power of the atom and Nuclear force and yet we still need fossil fuels and wage wars under false pretences to get more control over the lovely black gold; the world is a nasty place these days, but nothing ever changed right?
I got worried at points along the way of writing. I had enough story dreamt up over the years to make ten books with certain story arches and pivotal beats right to the end. Putting them to paper or computer screen and have certain themes mutate and with any heart or feeling had to be considered. Also the other concern was that stories had been done before over and over. But like the difference between a chocolate cake and a lemon sponge, you apply the ingredients accordingly and hope something comes out that isn’t flat or akin to a brick that’ll sink quicker than a mob victim wearing concrete boots. But this is de-constructing a thing into the realms of the post modern. Every one an artist with nothing new to say, cashing in on the same old bla bla babble babble sex sex sex and don’t forget the violence as Marilyn Manson once sang. But how many books and films are the same? Vampires, love, sex and mills and boon times infinity. Aliens invading, hero’s pervading and all on the basis that there has to be a message to it all. That is the one thing that I will not likely talk about. Mainly because of out those who have read my stuff in the first novel, only one or two really grasped the idiocy of the whole affair. But in later blogs I will talk about some documentaries and the state of affairs that also add ingredients to the written world I attempted am still pursuing. But in all, there was a song I used to listen to in order to refine the whole base theme of what I had written. Tool with the song Right in two (Youtube it) says it all. You can’t hope for a better future without the right narrative or until everyone faces up to the same old horrors that keep repeating themselves in this reality. I like stories and books, but the moral context has to be more than just find true love, find the treasure or kill all the bad people….