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Alan and the Media Gods

One of my character traits which irritates a lot of my friends is my almost total refusal to watch TV and cinema SF (actually it is worse than that - I seldom watch ANY TV or cinema programmes, SF or otherwise; but don't tell anyone I told you). When I attempt to justify my attitude people often get rather defensive and sniffy and we both depart in a huff. So I thought I'd use this column to explain the reasons for my dislike of the visual media and to try and justify those reasons by comparing and contrasting media SF with the books I've been reading this month (and maybe one or two others as well as the occasion arises). This month’s books are a fairly random selection (as most of my reading tends to be) but I think we can find sufficient parallels to make an interesting case.

My first major objection to sitting down in front of the haunted fishtank is that virtually all the SF I see on it is so incredibly old fashioned that it seems scarcely worth paying any attention to. It stultifies through terminal boredom and over-familiarity. It promulgates the ideas and the tropes that written SF was investigating 80 years ago. Star Trek's five year mission was to seek out new life and new civilisations; to boldly go where no man has gone before. Well this idea was ancient when E. E. Smith nicked it and wrote it up in 1915 (see, for example, The Skylark of Space). Good grief - Homer used it in The Odyssey for heaven's sake. By itself, it no longer has any credence - it is simply a travelogue writ large; nothing new there.

Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the idea. With the proper treatment the simple travelogue writ large, with no other embellishments at all, can still be made to work in the hands of a master. Look at Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama for example, a book with no detectable shred of merit whatsoever in terms of plot and character and yet it enthrals by the sheer size of its concept and the utter bravado with which Clarke paints the boldest of strokes upon his canvas. Most media SF, while equally deficient in plot and character, chickens out in the face of the big ideas and fails as drama through a failure of nerve. It would far rather deal with soap opera than high opera, Puccini instead of Wagner. But we both know where the real art lies in that choice, don't we?

To be fair to Star Trek, there have been occasions (though very few) when it has managed to transcend the strait-jacket that it binds itself in. Sometimes it really did explore ideas cleverly and face up to the numinous. When Kirk managed to put his gonads away, sometimes something clever surfaced. The City on the Edge of Forever, for example. Or (for different reasons entirely) The Trouble with Tribbles. But you have to look very, very hard indeed.

By itself, an old fashioned approach isn't sufficient reason to condemn, and if that was all there was to my objections I think they'd be easily dismissed as shallow ones. After all, any idea with whiskers down to there, be it as trivial as a journey or as transcendent as a god-like indifference to our questionings, can be stolen and used productively, and often has been. All it takes is a bit of ingenuity and Homer is always a good source to nick ideas from because he's dead and doesn't care any more. Doc Smith's clever idea was to take The Odyssey into space. But after he did that, it ceased to be a clever idea and it became common coin; anybody else who wanted to use it would have to invent a new wrinkle over and above just "let's just go out there and look" if they didn't want to re-tread ground already trod. Of course, that means trying to define just what a new wrinkle might be - never an easy task. Fortunately the wrinkle doesn't have to be profound. Sometimes little things can make a big difference whatever the medium.

Take Dreamcatcher, the new Stephen King novel. On the surface there isn't anything in it that King and many other people haven't done a million times before. In its own way it ploughs the same clichéd furrow that I've moaned about for the last few paragraphs. All the familiar plot elements appear. Four childhood friends are bound together by close ties because of things that happened to them in their childhood (King has always done children brilliantly). There are hints of telepathy, hints of a gestalt integration of their personalities and more than a little homage to Sturgeon's More than Human, up to and including the catalyst of the idiot who makes the gestalt possible in the first place. That's all right - if you are going to steal, you should always steal from the very best, and King files off the serial numbers quite convincingly and makes the plot his very own. That's always a requirement when you build on the work of others.

Now that these children are adults, each has gone their separate ways. But they cannot escape the spell that binds them and every year they holiday together in the New England wilderness. They hunt, they commune with nature, they reinforce the ties that bind them. But this year things go wrong - this year there are lights in the sky, UFO stories, strange circumstances. A lost hunter strays into their camp. To their horror he seems to be being eaten from inside by an alien growth. Eventually it bursts free (lots of lovely gore, just like in the film Alien, except the thing explodes out of his arse instead of his chest). It soon becomes clear that the Earth is being invaded and guess who is the first (and last) line of defence?

It's utter crap of course - even Stephen King would be the first to admit it. In terms of the ideas it presents it is just as old fashioned and tedious and derivative as the TV programs I've been criticising. So why can I enjoy one and not the other? Why does this cliché-ridden book work so brilliantly and why does the cliché-ridden TV program fail so ponderously?

I think the word I'm looking for is "characterisation". King makes me believe in his characters. They live, they love, they breathe and eat and fart (farting is a very important plot point in the book, believe it or not). They jump alive off the page. It's all done by bits of business of course, but so subtly placed that often you don't notice them consciously. All you know is that you hurt when the characters do, you laugh at their triumphs, weep at their tragedies. This is seldom done successfully on TV. The bits of business are all too often missing. The so called characters in Star Trek are almost indistinguishable in terms of attitude and personality and the few mechanisms of distinction that the script writers and actors allow themselves seldom rise above the level of funny hats. Mr Spock raises a quizzical eyebrow and murmurs about logic, Captain Kirk makes preachy speeches about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in between attempting to be the personification of testosterone in a T-shirt with ever more beautiful alien princesses (and sometimes human ones as well). We expect to see it week after week, it reinforces our preconceptions and (annoyingly) it never, ever changes. There's a degree of comfort in familiarity. But it isn't characterisation. It's the dramatic equivalent of a nervous tic - a characteristic but not a character. So the people don't live and breathe, they aren't rounded out. The shallowness of their representation simply makes them unchangeable and (given the almost clone-like way they reflect each other's attitudes) interchangeable as well. That's not how real people work, so it's a turn off to watch.

Characterisation makes or breaks and transcends the medium. I've read four Neal Barrett novels this month. Not one of them has any plot or situation worth speaking of at all. People wander round and interact. They talk and fight and make love. Some get killed, some don't. When the page count is long enough, everything stops. The most vacuous media SF generally has more coherence than this. The only reason the books work at all (and believe me they work brilliantly) is because Barrett concentrates on character to the exclusion of almost everything else. None of the characters is real (at least I hope not). All are so weirdly eccentric that you'd never want to meet them in a dark alley. But the eccentricities, bizarre though they are, are far more than mere funny hats that re-occur predictably under predictable circumstances (vide Kirk and Spock again) because Barrett (somehow) makes you believe in them. I wish I could work out how he does it, for it is a skill of the highest order; he makes insanity sane.

I don't demand reality in prose or picture; that would all too often be dull. All I want is a chance willingly to suspend my disbelief because of the word pictures (or actual pictures) that the medium presents. Barret's raving eccentrics, dressed up in the most magnificent prose, cast a magic spell that the hackneyed, and all too obvious media characters generally fail to cast. They have the fascination of the bizarre, the almost horrified, goggle-eyed anticipation that asks what will they think of next?

It's all in the words, in the word-picture spells they cast in your mind.

At one point, a Barrett hero is musing on the qualities of his new clothes. Jacket, trousers, shoes made of soft Italian leather. So soft, so flexible, the shoes must be made from the skins of unborn popes.

Another Barrett character is a Nobel-prize-winning novelist (wish fulfilment, anybody?) who has retired to his plantation and become ravingly eccentric. He keeps a pack of 48 dogs and employs a full time vet whose job is to ensure that the dogs are shaved bald, and that they stay that way. And on the skin of the dogs, he has penned his latest work of deathless prose. Unfortunately the dogs escape and only 39 of them are recaptured. The whole of chapter 6 and most of chapter 22 are missing. What a tragedy.

It says much for Barret's skill that he can make you believe this whole nonsensical farrago. They are only bits of business, but they all add up. The important point is that they add up to something greater than the sum of the parts because of the ingenuity, the originality and sometimes the sheer craziness of it all. It isn't safe, it isn't predictable and it hasn't got one eye on the advertisers. After all, when four whole novels are nothing BUT bits of business you've got to make them good bits of business; eye catching, thought provoking or funny. In order to work, they cannot be exactly the same, book after book or (in the case of the media), week after interminable week after never ending week. That's how Barrett got it right and the TV got it wrong.

One of the games you can play with a long running series, be it written or pictorial, is to have a story arc running through it. Individual episodes are complete in themselves, but each makes a contribution to a larger tale. Babylon 5 used this idea a lot and it was one of the things that contributed to the depth and subtlety of this very fine programme. There's nothing new about the idea of course. Michael Moorcock's been doing it for fifty years and it isn't original with him either. The Dreamthief's Daughter is the latest story of Elric. It is set in relatively modern times, in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. Count Ulric Von Bek is the last of his line. A dreamy albino aristocrat, he falls foul of the machinations of his cousin Gaynor who wants to take control of the black sword called Ravenblade that Ulric has inherited. This together with the Grail (an avatar of the Runestaff) can do nothing but advance the Nazi cause. Ulric refuses to give up his sword and is sent to a concentration camp from where he is rescued by Oswald Bastable and Oona, the daughter of Elric and the dreamthief. She too is an albino. Together they flee to the underground realm of Mu-Ooria, pursued by Gaynor and his partner Klosterheim. There they learn that the eternal city of Tanelorn itself is under siege by an army commanded by an avatar of Gaynor. Ulric meets his ancestor (and doppelganger) Elric. For a time they join together as one to wield the black sword. Later they separate and the black sword becomes two - Ravenblade and Stormbringer. The game's afoot and it becomes a race against time and circumstance to posses the grail and save (or ruin) the multiverse. Needless to say, this is the first of three novels.

It can be read as a stand alone book, but it has resonances with at least a dozen other Moorcock books, possibly more. Some are about Elric, some not. The novel joins the stories of the Von Bek clan to the sagas of both Elric and Oswald Bastable and several characters from the Jerry Cornelius series have a prominent part to play as well. Each of these separate strands illuminates the other and is a part of a larger theme, a higher tale. Moorcock loves these games. He positively revels in the ramifications and self-references of such large story arcs. But really, both Moorcock and Babylon 5 are latecomers to this idea and neither deserves the praise that has been heaped on them for constructing their stories in this manner. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeniad probably make one of the longest (and prettiest) story arcs ever written; all the way from the Trojan war to the founding of Rome with uncounted other arcs in between (The Odyssey itself embodies many smaller arcs within the larger tale of Odysseus' journey home to his wife). And the stories have different authors as well; which is a very media oriented phenomenon indeed! Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

The game of self reference that Moorcock plays doesn't necessarily always have to translate into a story arc. Sometimes it is just a game and no other justification is necessary (games are fun). Deep Space 9 played the game when the characters re-visited the classic Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles. Because this programme led from strength with a brilliantly constructed episode to return to, it was considerably less boring than the norm. When a programme stops taking its trivialities seriously and lets its hair down the result can often be enormously entertaining. Unfortunately far too often the producers lose sight of this and the programme is then simply ponderous and sometimes preachy.

One of my strongest objections to the SF I see on the box is the way in which the programme manages to gobble up enormous swathes of time without advancing the plot one jot or tittle by having the characters spout pages of supposedly scientific jargon at each other. This is simply pathetic and beneath contempt. Damon Knight sums it up like this:

    1. You can't beat the old malarkey.
    2. Nobody but kids go to see these things.
    3. Science is all double talk anyway, so what the hell

He then goes on to discuss a most appalling novel called Mach 1 - A Story of Planet Ionus by Allen. A. Alder.

The Mach-1 (Knight explains) is a nuclear powered torpedo boat designed to exceed the speed of sound. It rides out of the water on a fin and smoothes a path for itself with a "tri-node" that emits "occulting current".

What is occulting current? "Well, it's much more powerful than direct or alternating current. It's amperage can be made to build like an atomic chain. Its ray produces a peculiar molecular cohesion." (See In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight. Advent 1967, pp101 - 102).

Ancient though it is, that vomit making pile of putrescent language could easily have come straight out of any present day media SF extravaganza. It demonstrates the same contempt for the knowledge level and intelligence of the audience and shows the same desire to soak up time (or pages) without the necessity of actually turning the brain on and doing something to advance the story.

I don't mind pseudo-scientific bullshit if it is convincing pseudo-scientific bullshit which at least pays lip service the current state of knowledge instead of merely exhibiting such appalling ignorance that you scarcely know where to begin criticising it. Good pseudo-scientific bullshit is enormous fun and deserves to be milked for all it is worth.

With In the Country of the Blind Michael Flynn re-invents Asimov's discipline of psychohistory and provides a neat and utterly convincing language to describe this non-existent science. The premise is that in the nineteenth century, American researchers build several working models of the Babbage analytical engine. With this huge computing power at their fingertips, they invent a science of social prediction based on statistical manipulations and they use this knowledge to influence social and political events in order to shape the world the way that they want it to be. Obviously the society must remain secret in order that its machinations go undiscovered (as Asimov himself remarked, such manipulations can only succeed if the statistical universe does not know it is being manipulated. Introduction of such knowledge skews the data and leads to unpredictability).

The bulk of the novel takes place in the twentieth century when the existence of the secret society starts to be suspected and the resultant tale of paranoia, greed and political machination is utterly fascinating. Flynn starts to lose the thread a little as the number of secret societies grows out of control. A consequence of the equations is that most manipulative societies will ultimately have philosophical schisms and begin to fight against themselves. By the late twentieth century there are dozens of them and Flynn finds it increasingly difficult to juggle all the balls convincingly. Nevertheless it is a fast-paced, enthralling tale and the jargon that he invents adds verisimilitude.

The reason that it works when the kind of nonsense I quoted earlier fails to work is that Flynn defines (and justifies) every word, every phrase. The words make philological sense as well as philosophical sense. They aren't pulled out of left field in a contemptuous attempt to blind the audience with buzzword compliant bullshit. They aren't real (the science he describes doesn't exist) but they ARE convincing, something which a pseudo-random collection of time wasting, jaw breaking gibberish can never be. The difference between the two is always obvious. I have no patience at all with one, but infinite patience with the other. I think I'm asking not to have my intelligence insulted. I want to be treated with the respect I deserve. When a TV programme or a book insults me at that level I want no more of it. I don't like being treated with contempt. If you want to pull the wool over my eyes, you'd better use very fine needles in order to knit the garment close. If I can see through it, I'll come after you and kill you.

I don't want to brag, but often I can watch a TV programme for about five minutes and then tell you almost incident for incident and plot point for plot point what is going to happen over the course of the next hour. The stories are often stultifyingly predictable, and the reason they are so predictable is that the writers and directors always seem to take the path of least resistance; they always do the obvious things. The primary rule of media SF seems to be to eschew subtlety. Given a choice between safe predictability and risk taking, a show will tend to opt for safety. Partly this is a failure of nerve, partly a failure of the imagination and partly it is because people and advertisers (no - they aren't people) are generally more comfortable with the things that they know than with the things that they don't know. Unfortunately this tends to stifle creativity.

Since I've figured the whole thing out five minutes into the programme I seldom perceive any need to watch any more. It just wastes my time. I'll go and do something more productive. I must admit that if I cared more about the characters or the situations I'd probably stay and watch. But since I don't care (for reasons already described), I find nothing to keep me.

Neal Stephenson falls into this trap in The Big U. This was his first novel. It dates from 1984 and has long been out of print; mainly, so rumour has it, because Stephenson himself was a little ashamed of it. But now, because of the reputation he has gained for himself with Cryptonomicon, anything with his name on it is guaranteed to sell, and the publishers have brought it out again in order to make a quick buck.

The first half of the book is really very entertaining. It describes the slightly surreal world of a large American University and Stephenson captures beautifully the very Kafka-esque bureaucratic atmosphere that any university graduate from any country at all will easily recognise and feel at home with. It is very funny and beautifully observed. But about half way through he loses it completely. There is the usual student demonstration, the revolt against authority. One of the ringleaders is a slightly psychotic individual who is heavily into fantasy role playing games and who regularly runs large scale wide-gaming meetings in the cellars and sewers beneath the university. As the demonstration progresses we see more and more of the picture distorted through his paranoia and the novel collapses into a blow by blow account of role playing clichés. It becomes dull and predictable.

I stayed all the way to the end but I wish I hadn't bothered. There are no surprises. Even the surrealism ceases to attract and collapses into a rather shrill striving for effect that generally falls far short of expectation. I'm not surprised that Stephenson has resisted its republication.

There's only one possible conclusion to be drawn. In every case the books I admire exhibit many of the same traits that I deplore in media SF. Therefore none of these traits can of themselves be regarded as damaging. To that extent media SF must be a viable and valid art. Quite obviously any work of art can survive and transcend these drawbacks as long as there are contrasting virtues that outweigh them. Failures seem to occur whenever too many negative traits are present with no counterbalancing positive ones to redeem them - this is true of both the visual and the written arts. So there is no sense of disparagement in the simple choice of medium. It's what happens after that choice has been made that matters.

It seems to me that, for whatever reason, all too often the visual arts concentrate predominantly on the weaknesses that I've highlighted and they neglect the corresponding strengths that could save them from failure. Perhaps it's a failure of nerve, perhaps a failure of imagination, perhaps simply a crassly commercial attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator (safety in numbers). That's a riddle I can't unravel.

I won't claim that the written word reverses the equation (that is demonstrably not true) but I do claim that the written arts seem to transcend the drawbacks that I've discussed by virtue of their other, positive contributions far more often than the visual arts do. When vices predominate over virtues we have a guaranteed recipe for artistic failure. Those things that I called bits of business flesh out the plots and round out the characters more frequently in the written than in the visual arts. When it is presented unimaginatively, when it descends to repetitive formulae, art turns into mere commerce and becomes cheap and undeserving of respect.

I agree that the borderline is narrow (but that should be a positive thing, for then it is easy to bestride). All too often though the borderline is perceived as an insurmountable barrier. That's when the path of least resistance is taken. It seems to me that media programmes err on the side of conservatism, respectability, dullness and familiarity because it's easy, and they neglect the spark that occasionally (just occasionally) lights up the written word.

So given the choice, I'd rather read a book.

Stephen King Dreamcatcher Hodder and Stoughton
Neal Barrett Jr Pink Vodka Blues Kensington
Neal Barrett Jr Dead Dog Blues Kensington
Neal Barrett Jr Skinny Annie Blues Kensington
Neal Barrett Jr Bad Eye Blues Kensington
Michael Moorcock The Dreamthief's Daughter Simon and Schuster
Michael Flynn In the Country of the Blind Pan
Neal Stephenson The Big U Perennial

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