Sunday, 29 March 2015

When The Cat's Away [Review: Gone]

I previously reviewed The Speed Of Dark, Elizabeth Moon's near-future novel about adults with autism, here. As this week is World Autism Awareness Week I've chosen to review another novel featuring a character with autism: Gone by Michael Grant.

Suddenly and without warning or special effects of any kind, all the adults and over-15s living in Sam Temple's town Perdido Beach have disappeared. A mysterious barrier has also appeared around the town so no-one can leave or contact the outside world in any way. And there's more: Sam, and some of the other children have developed a range of superpowers, apparently before the disappearance.

Gone is the first book in Michael Grant's popular series of novels for young adults, set in a present-day world without adults. While the novel explores this scenario, introduces Sam and his companions and other less likeable children, and sets up a long list of mysteries to be revealed later in the series, it also explores some satisfyingly heavy themes. It's been written into international law that all YA fiction must be about social inequality, and Gone is no exception, but as it's set in the present day, the social tensions are perfectly familiar: attitudes towards immigrants, religious intolerance and the gap between rich and poor parts of town, rather than futuristic factions or districts.

Grant is a confident writer, able to tackle real-world subjects that some authors seem to avoid or allegorize: including religious tension and also discrimination over mental illness. A minor character is a teenager with bulimia, and Sam's allies include Astrid and her young brother Pete who is portrayed as severely autistic - either unable or unwilling to communicate most of the time and severely distressed by raised voices or other disturbances. There's a strong protective bond between Pete and Astrid, and without too much infodumping Astrid is still able to communicate the nature of autism to the others (and to the reader.)

The scenario is not particularly original: superficial elements may have been "borrowed" from Stephen King's Under The Dome and the many, many teenage-superpower books and films. It succeeds in mixing these elements to create something that feels fresh, and is willing to take the reader into a fairly dark place - it would be fair to describe Gone as a re-imagined Lord Of The Flies. It's a gripping read that also has something meaningful to say.

Friday, 27 March 2015

"Steampunk Girl" Screening: London Independent Film Festival

Some great news: "Steampunk Girl" is on the official selection for London Independent Film Festival 2015! This will be my second LIFF screening (the first was "2007" shown at LIFF 2012) and I'm really looking forward to being back. I'll post details of the screening and festival programme as soon as they become available.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Hi Honey, I'm Home [Review: The Bees]

Flora 717 is born to a life of drudgery as a sanitation worker, the lowest caste in a walled, fascist Queendom where only a lucky few foragers and drones get to see the outside world. She's an outsider due to her abilities - she can literally talk, unlike the rest of her caste, she is intelligent and questioning, and she has ideas above her station - and if the guards or the Fertility Police don't stop her, she just might be the cause of a revolution one day. Yes, this is every YA dystopian novel scenario ever, rolled into one book - but Flora 717 is a bee, and just for once the scenario actually makes sense.

Laline Paull's novel follows in a great tradition of anthropomorphization - Animal Farm, Watership Down. There are one or two flights of fancy - the chambers of the beehive have doors and scent-coded floor panels, the police have visors and gauntlets, and the bees have a jet engine in their abdomen. This last might be a reference to the old idea of scientists being convinced that bees could not fly - but as we all know, the 2005 Altshuler study (abstract here) put that one to rest. I mean, it's always seemed obvious to me that unsteady forces during stroke reversal would make a large contribution to net upward force during hovering, but then what do I know? I'm just a drone...

This book can be enjoyed twice - first by reading it and then by fact-checking it. With the exception of the doors and the jet engines, it was a lot of fun discovering that almost every concept in the plot is factually accurate with very little embroidery. Take the wide range of worker castes and activities - or the scent produced by a Queen which keeps the entire hive loyal - or the lazy drone lifestyle - or the winter cluster - or the not-so-royal behaviour of newly hatched Princesses - or even Flora 717's secret, it's all there in the real-life complexity of honey bee society.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

St. Albans - Short Film Selection

St. Albans Film Festival website is live! The full programme is yet to be announced but they've published the short film selection here. Steampunk Girl will be screened in the Music Video event.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Campaign For A Worse Tomorrow

So I've read The Hunger Games, Divergent, Delirium, Wool, Inside Out, The Bone Season, and recently Laline Paull's novel "The Bees." For the most part I've enjoyed them - but how do they stack up against the work of classic dystopian writers such as George Orwell or Suzy McKee Charnas?

What's not missing is some quality writing, with strong characters and intense settings. I think the opposite is true, this is a real strength of the genre right now and it's very clear , if only from the sales figures, that these books have been ensnaring and captivating new readers. So what's missing?

1. Originality While there are a lot of original concepts in all of the above books, there are also a lot of unoriginal ones: like the walled city, the fascist police, the rigid caste system, the unfair division of wealth, the outcast hero and of course the love affair that spans all boundaries. It all makes a good literary drinking game to play at your book group, but the result is a kind of create-a-dystopian-society-by-the-numbers. As if to prove the point, random YA dystopia generators have sprung up here and here.

It's a kind of laziness - save time developing your own backstory by referring to someone else's. To be fair it's not unique to this genre at all, it's something that occurs throughout literature. The result is a backstory that doesn't feel credible and doesn't connect to the real world. An exception is "The Bees" where the walled hive and the caste system make sense as the main characters are bees.

2. Social Commentary George Orwell's "1984" was driven by the development of Communism into a totalitarian state, and the fear that this could be the future of the world. "A Walk To The End Of The World" by Suzy Mckee Charnas is a feminist novel taking male oppression to a seriously extreme conclusion. While the new-ish wave does seem to care about class or wealth inequalities, these feel like easy targets but there's no real attempt to criticise or satirise present-day countries, societies, governments or political trends.

3. Hardcore suffering Kurt Vonnegut's famous advice to writers (summarised here) includes the following gem: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of." I'm not saying Katniss and the others don't suffer at all. But in all honesty I don't think she, Flora 717 or any of the new-wave heroes would last very long in Room 101.

4. Some curious omissions The Panem society, the Divergent scenario and many of the above settings, for all their fascist trappings, are surprisingly feminist. It's as if the overlords took a few years out of their plan to conquer and enslave the poor, in order to achieve total gender equality, apparently with minimum effort. Well done, dystopian leaders! Once again, "The Bees" is a notable exception.

So I propose to write a dystopia about a teenage girl growing up in a society where everyone is forced to read dystopian fiction from birth, who starts to suspect that, beyond the mysterious wall of dystopian books there might be some other mysterious reality, and who must pluck up the courage to lead a revolution so that her kin can enjoy (for example) Scandinavian detective novels. Cheers...

Sunday, 22 February 2015

En-Turing Love [Review: The Imitation Game]

The Imitation Game is a great example of cinematic Augmented Reality. I loved this film and, straight after watching it I was inspired to find out more about this interesting period in history. As I quickly found, there are several ways in which this movie improves on history, and several online articles fact-checking it. I'll point you to this one by an authority on Turing, it's very readable and the author agrees with me that the inaccuracies don't kill the movie. Incidentally this movie stars some guy or other as Turing, can't really remember who. He's quite good. I shouldn't wonder if he'll probably be appearing in some more films soon.

Augmented reality should be used for a reason. Adding a Communist spy to Turing's team adds some great dramatic moments in itself, but also dramatises the difficult relationship between the West and Russia during the war. Similarly, making Turing misanthropic rather than just shy, and making him fight with commander and co-workers (in fact he got along just fine with all of them) symbolises the conceptual battle to solve Enigma, which would otherwise have occurred in his head only.

On the other hand Turing's treatment at the hands of the authorities, including his criminalization and chemical "treatment" for homosexuality, is of course true, as is the depiction of his early life, school experiences and crush on his schoolfriend Christopher. Which brings me to a really interesting element of the film - the computer Christopher, built by Turing.

In real life Turing's work on the development of programmable computers was hugely important. He also designed a non-programmable machine called a Bombe, to automate the Enigma code-breaking process. So Christopher is a fictional character, a combination of two separate Turing projects - and fictional Turing's love for fictional Christopher outshines his love for human Christopher, human Joan Clarke or humanity in general. In a way, Turing's fictional mission is to persuade his fellow codebreakers that a computer can fight alongside them and contribute to the war effort. Equal rights for computers!