Fiction: Bacchae

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(London Bridge Borough High St (Stop Y) by Karl Pallinger, with Google data claim)

Bethan rested her hand on the gritty surface of the wall, and Angharad winced. It almost hurt to watch Bethan lay the lush plump heart of her palm on it. The processes involved in constructing the poured-concrete building had required no element of direct human touch, and it seemed as though the wall had never been intended for it.

“Bethan! Bethan, come away, I’m dying for a piss!”

Bethan just stood there, not sober but steady in her stilettos, with one hand flat against the wall—like she was standing in front of a bloody door and didn’t know how to knock.

Read full story here, at Big Echo.

 

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The Fifth Element (review)

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The Fifth Element (1997) is well-made. I don’t think you can deny that, and this sense of craft is one of my favourite things about it. Sure it has a somewhat hand-wavy space opera plot, featuring a giant ball of evil: why not? (Really I don’t think Fifth Element hangs together worse than Ghostbusters, which fanboys acclaim as a classic without qualification.) It’s not the story that does it for me so much as how it’s told. Element does tons of great, casual characterisation work. Its representation game is fairly strong. The script employs dozens of easy, unsmug, rhythmic lays-and-pick-ups, which are just satisfying to watch. A contest is advertised on television, and later someone wins it. There’s a garbage strike and a resultant big pile of refuse, which is discussed and then used in an escape. The protagonist’s bed wraps up in plastic after each use: someone inevitably gets trapped in there.

The film feels like it came from a team that was very aware of other media, and drawing from an eclectic multi-national and multi-media range of sources. The theme and aesthetic invoke Star Gate‘s (1994) cosmic Egyptology. The police uniforms and the particular intersection of sprawling public disorder and over-powerful (if itself disorderly) state authority pull from Judge Dredd comics. Blade Runner is also in the room. Bits of the cityscape (I’m thinking of a particular bridge we see in the back of the frame during the taxi sequence) and vehicle design are derived from the epic Franco-Belgian Les Cites Obscures comics. The design of the Floston Paradise cruise ship reflects not only this, but also the rash of Titanic films coming out around 1997. Æon Flux infuses its costuming, as does June Hudson’s iconic work for British sci-fi television and the not-unconnected project(s) of Alexander McQueen.

Fifth Element‘s determination to include labour in its plot and visuals also feels akin to what British scifi television was doing in the 80s and 90s in Blakes 7Red Dwarf and Doctor Who. The garbage strike, the taxi minutiae, the smoked-up spaceship parasite disposal team, and even Ruby Rob’s professional hustle make labour manifest in this world in a way that’s rare in contemporary filmic SF. But it’s a film as dedicated to the epic as the quotidian: the huge space-ships are pure Star Destroyer, and some of the costuming is from Star Wars‘ visual universe as well (the Star Wars prequels, which we must remember employed many excellent designers even if the overall project was a mess from conception to completion, return the favour by visually quoting Fifth Element‘s Brooklyn, among other elements, for their Coruscant). I really welcome both the space opera scope and the commitment to working-class detail. Too many SF films lack ambition in either category, preferring to occupy a vague and unsatisfying Everyman middle-ground: SF of the bourgeoisie.

Brighton Fringe 2017

The Brighton Fringe is smaller than the Edinburgh Fringe, and judging by what I’ve seen of them, Brighton’s offerings don’t have quite the production values some (though decidedly not all) Edinburgh shows manage. But if Scotland leaves the UK and becomes an EU member in its own right, the English people who flock north to perform and spectate in August like confused and misdirected migrating birds may have to learn to love Brighton. God only knows what the theatrical work visa situation will look like for small companies then.

This may seem small potatoes compared to the prospect of such an upheaval, but the Edinburgh Fringe is a huge economic event (£4 million in ticket sales in 2016, not counting the 600+ Free Fringe shows which rely on donations [source] or the £142 million the Fringe generated for Edinburgh in 2010 [source]). It’s also a major part of the UK’s theatre lifecycle, the whole shape of which may change if the EdFringe becomes even more expensive and inconvenient to participate in than it already is.  While the EdFringe is great for Scotland’s economy, at present it’s often a loss-leading operation for performers: a risky, sometimes disastrous venture that, if they’re lucky, enables them to establish reputations and set up gigs for the rest of the year off the back of it.

Read full review here.

 

Moondial

War Games Proposal

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I submitted a book proposal to the Black Archive’s Doctor Who series for “War Games”, then asked to un-submit it when I realised you only got two goes a year, and that given the upcoming schedule of calls I was already going to have to eliminate Three, Five or “Unquiet Dead”.

I thought you might enjoy the sketched-out book anyway. It’s not my BEST take–I didn’t have time to rewatch “War Games”, as I would have liked (it’s a COMMITMENT), but y’know, it’s some thoughts maybe someone else might like to take up.

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CHAPTER SUMMARY:

Let me begin by saying that I realise asking for The War Games is jammy beyond jammy, a vast vat of the viscous stuff. It’s the biggie: all ten plump little episodes, and all the plot and canon formation that goes on within those confines. Yet because it’s so important, even as one wonders how to do it justice, one is almost obligated to ask!

I love the whole idea of this range, of finally doing litcrit/textual work on Who in addition to production-focused criticism. Not that a production perspective doesn’t yield something valuable, but for so long we’ve been talking about Who as craft and never as art. Black Archive feels like such an exciting, past-due addition to (re-direction of?) the conversation, that chips away at that craft/art false binary and allows these approaches to productively speak to one another.

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1. Intro:

Precis of the serial. We might find this phatic–surely if you’ve bought this book you know this episode like the back of your hand? But often the memory does cheat. Beyond that, an attentive reading often draws my attention to things I hadn’t previously seen in a text, or changes my thinking about the relative weight of given elements. It also gets readers and author on the same page re: thematic concerns.

This is also a good place to nod to other critical treatments of the serial, and to do a quick ‘literature review’. There’s a great deal of spilt digital ink, fanzine material, etc., on this serial that I’d need to read and re-read. (There’s also a fun commentary on the War Chief’s project management skills: https://orangeanubis.com/tag/patrick-troughton/ .)

There’s something to be said here about the choice of periods or war-zones (euro-heavy, relatively temporally compressed), the BBC’s broader costume drama tendencies/this serial as historical fiction, and about War Games’ not wholly unprecedented but still ambitious exploitation of the show’s time-jumping formula.

2. “Man is the most vicious species of all.”

Having set up the plot, we can turn to the War Lords’ endeavours. I’d like to pay particular attention to a line of thinking the War Chief articulates:

“Consider their history. For a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose.”

Who pulls this ‘wicked, naughty humans!’ business almost as constantly as it pulls ‘x species spurred human development/x sits underneath the surface of the Earth like a fae kingdom’. It appears to be quite a mature critical gesture: the emerging British national epic holds up a mirror to the country which, until very recently, had an empire the sun never set on. Actually, however, I think the ‘savage humans’ accusation functions more like a Bakhtin carnival. This faux-criticism defangs anxiety about whether the viewers are at all implicated by the actions of the baddies: whether they’re ever more Dalek than Doctor. The important thing in this exoneration mechanic is not that the Doctor denies the War Chief’s charge in the next line (it is indeed patently ridiculous in the show-universe, often asserted but simply silly when Daleks et al exist). The important thing is that the charge is made, that we the audience roll around in a moment of liberal smugness at our own ability to see our faults, and then excuse ourselves of them. You can’t look at this instance of ‘consider their savage history’ without examining Who’s long fascination with this topic.

Despite having access to time-travel technology that could theoretically enable them to pluck human soldiers from wars yet undreamt of in our own time, the War Lords only collect combatants from the Great War and earlier. A line about the potential danger of ‘technological advancement’ allows the serial to elide World War II (‘too soon’ for contemporary viewers). This technological excuse is somewhat curious given that while atomic science was indeed playing out somewhere, a great deal of trench equipment, like the Fullerphone, remained consistent across the wars.

But where, in the War Lords’ cavalcade of conflict, is empire? Only five of the eleven conflicts might offer significant numbers of non-white European combatants on either side (and of these, WWI is often perceived, and here depicted, as a ‘white’ conflict—though granted we don’t hear much about the Greek and Roman zones). Imperial examples of human viciousness (the quality the War Chief suggests is being cultivated and selected for by these experiments) are erased because they aren’t classed as true ‘battles’ between equal opponents: war is collapsed down into a chivalry narrative, and history into ‘half a million years’ of people (all people, we must suppose) ‘systematically killing each other’, without particular ascriptions of blame or power imbalance implied. History becomes a sort of evo-psych pageant of inevitability. I think it’s actually fairly powerful that Two treats this as simply stupid: it’s a bad plan based on a bad take.

New Who’s post-empire masculinity crisis in part arises from the Classic Who’s refusal to think about empire during Decolonisation. Arguments that Classic Who was a children’s text (always dicey to begin with) can’t wave away the show’s preoccupations and the subjects it chooses to engage with. For this section I’d draw in part on Aishwarya Subramanian’s work on post-war British children’s fantasy and empire.

3. Kriegsspiel:

I think it’d be interesting to talk a little about ‘war gaming’ in the historical training scenario sense. I recently presented on class in Dickens adaptations over the decades at Historical Fiction Research Network’s annual conference (and there should possibly be a note about class in the war-zones, in this treatment). While there, I heard a rich paper on war games as historical fiction, part of (in this paper’s case) the British navy’s curation of its self-image. I think good stuff could come of returning to that scholar’s discussion of war-gaming as training tool and image curation.

Obviously there’s a doubleness to the serial’s title. The War Lords are engaging in literal war games, while the episode sets up a disturbing picture of war as always essentially homogenous, always run by and conducted at the behest of faceless, interchangeable outsiders. The Security Chief and the War Chief’s petty in-fighting adds to the serial’s sense that this is what war is always like. To the people playing with human lives, the war games might as well be Homeward Bounders. The idea of higher beings testing or playing with humans in this way has a pedigree in fiction and SF that could be usefully illustrated in this volume. (For example I would be a little surprised if Homeward Bounders didn’t derive somewhat from War Games–after all, Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series is so ‘I watch Who with my children’ I’d swear to it, with citations.)

Further thought about the catch-and-release plot business of the episode ought to go here, under the general rubric of the extent to which this is ‘war as game’ for the Doctor and his companions as adventurers, and thus for the audience at home. It’s a counter-intuitive story, more novelistic than reminiscent of modern television. So few of this serial’s events matter in a plot-arc sense, giving rise to questions about what we get out of television, making us question what we get out of television, how a story attains and sustains attention, and the relationship between narrative space and character construction. War Games is a story built on delay, escape, and characters never being in the right place at the right time for the real plot to occur. The serial’s confrontations are ducked and dodged until the last possible moment. This is a story about surviving a situation, not rushing in to face opponents. I wouldn’t claim this as an intentional artistic move, but the kind of Falstaffian attitude about war that emerges certainly suits the second Doctor. Yet the Doctor’s Hal in this story, too: taking up his portentous heritage and claiming responsibility in summoning and then reckoning with the Time Lords, throwing off his joker persona (which is both authentic and a front) even while contesting with the indifferent paternalistic authority of his people.

This element will probably get fleshed out as I think more about the precis.

4. “his own people, the Time Lords”

A really exciting section! Obviously this serial narratively develops the Time Lords, and there’s incredibly rich stuff to dig into regarding their presentation here. Gaiman finds this their only satisfying outing (http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2007/05/nature-of-infection.html):

“In my head the Time Lords exist, and are unknowable – primal forces who cannot be named, only described: The Master, the Doctor, and so on. All depictions of the home of the Time Lords are, in my head, utterly non-canonical. The place in which they exist cannot be depicted because it is beyond imagining: a cold place that only exists in black and white.”

Ultimately I really disagree with Gaiman on this. I love what the Time Lords do in War Games, but for somewhat different reasons, and I wouldn’t give up the sociological function the Time Lords play in other stories (which allows the Doctor’s characterisation to develop by providing him with a contextualising background). This book wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the serial’s treatment of the Time Lords, and the things this development of them enables the canon to do. It’s far beyond ‘they stick Three on Earth’—the Time Lords’ existence (and increasingly, their culture) illuminates the Doctor’s particular character from here on out. The Doctor also enters a new stage in his relationship to the Time Lords, here.

It’d be interesting to read this discussion of non-interference against Star Trek’s concurrently-developing prime directive. Both are narrative devices with clear story-world functions, but do also signify politically, in alignment with and against the shows’ broader aims.

I’ve previously mentioned the Doctor’s choice to call in the Time Lords at great risk to himself as a particular moral turn for him. I think the importance and severity of this are underscored by that desperate scene of he and his companions struggling to attain the TARDIS as the Time Lords arrive. The power and threat of the Time Lords in the episode merit extensive discussion. We slip quickly from hitherto unseen telekinetic technology (the summoning box) to the terrifying unhappening of the War Lord, galactic exile for his entire species, invasive memory erasure for all the humans involved (including well-loved companions), and a more serious violation of the Doctor’s autonomy and body (and perhaps of the program format itself) than the show will ever again undergo. It’s an incredibly dramatic, daring choice, and in some ways it’s hard to imagine a contemporary program taking these sorts of risks or establishing these sorts of stakes.

And of course, while we’re here, is the War Chief the master? What does such a reading offer, and in what ways is it unsatisfying? This isn’t a question that needs a singular, definitive answer: in fact such a thing is undesirable. Clearly he’s a production-side harbinger of that character, a sort of test-run of the idea. Within the text, however, the War Chief seems to suspect the presence of someone known to him from almost the first sign of trouble. He and the Doctor’s recognition of one another seems intensely specific. It weakens the Master’s character somewhat if the Doctor has a score of such old frenemies, and despite the War Chief’s plan and treatment of the Doctor fitting so neatly into the Master’s MO in many ways, it’s also difficult to imagine the Master subsuming himself for years in a plot in which he was merely a functionary for other forces, losing even his name in the process. It’s also dramatically unsatisfying, in this regard, that the War Chief expends so much of his energy on his rivalry on the Security Chief. There’s a lot to say here about back-readings, why the show wanted a ‘Master’ shaped character, how it came to develop one (which the War Chief, like the Monk, is and isn’t), influences and experimentation.

And of course, courtesy of our aforementioned hirsute friend, there’s that brilliant bit at the end of ep six/beginning of ep 7 with the shrinking TARDIS/SIDRAT. It’s one of a handful to times a TARDIS becomes an alien, hostile, dangerous environment. The Edge of Destruction, the Master’s booby-trapped TARDIS in Frontier and the beginning of Castrovalva also come to mind immediately, of course, but it’s a relatively rare development. The device de-naturalises the semi-domestic space of the TARDIS, stripping back some of the safety the viewer has come to associate with the ship and laying the groundwork for the serial’s deeply unsafe ending. The serial’s conclusion is itself full of de-naturings. By the end of the story the Doctor and the own TARDIS will be deeply divided, and the Doctor will be unable to fully access his own mind.

5. “Memory’s a funny thing out here. Can’t always remember things myself.”

We can’t help but conclude with a discussion of the forced regeneration and the similarly forced removal of Zoe and Jamie’s memories, which echoes the memory-distortion the War Lords imposed on their victims. Jamie is literally released back into his own war zone. It’d be good to say a word on this in terms of the experience of watching Who in that era, without much ability to ‘summon back’ the show when it was gone. This effect has been course exacerbated, or perhaps simply extended, by the loss of so much Two-era footage. Our current reception of the show is laden down with memory. For the modern viewer, Early Who always carries the weight of the intervening years between production and reception on its back. It’s also laden with the reception-drag of and the totality of Who that will come (like a sort of age-reversed Aeneas and Anchises).

This was also an interesting time for traumatic memory loss in the public discourse. Psychoanalysis was in the air and the then-contemporary thinkpieces, getting heavily re-worked by second wave feminists. These thinkers’ emphasis on female sexuality brought Freudian memory-constructions, which were developmentally associated with assault narratives, under particular scrutiny. Psychoanalysis also gave extensive attention of the Great War, trauma and memory. It’d feel remiss not to spend a few pages dealing with the analytic dimensions of the serial’s treatment of extraordinary forgetting.

Questions of agency abound for the human soldiers, the exiled War Lords, the Time Lords, the Doctor and his companions. Canon and paracanon attempt to address aspects of these, as does media fandom to an extent. What do these fictional readings tell us about the elements of War Games that resonated with or continued to disquiet people over the decades?

6. Closing:

A consideration of the aforementioned themes, in cross-chapter conversation, and a word about War Games’ legacy for the Who canon and in broader culture.

Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift

This is the first instalment of my new Strange Horizons column. “Kirk Drift” is a long-read essay on Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, popular memory, gender politics, radical nostalgia and the unicorn dog.

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Section 1: What a lousy party!

Good parties diverge widely; all bad parties are bad in the same way. I am trapped at a dull dinner following a dull talk: part of a series of dinners and talks that grad students organise, unpaid (though at considerable expense to themselves—experience! exposure!), to provide free content for the dull grad program I will soon leave. The Thai food is good. The man sitting across from me and a little down the way, a bellicose bore of vague continental origin, is execrable. He is somehow attached to a mild woman who is actually supposed to be here: a shy, seemingly blameless new grad student who perpetually smiles apologetically on his behalf, in an attempt to excuse whatever he’s just said. One immediately understands that she spends half her life with that worry in her eyes, that Joker-set to her mouth, and that general air of begging your pardon for offences she hadn’t even had the pleasure of committing. There is always such a woman at bad parties. She has always either found herself entrapped by a clone of this man, or soon will.

We reach the point of no return when the omnijerk (really I suspect there’s just one vast eldritch horror sitting in another dimension that extrudes its thousand tentacles into our own, and that each one of This Guy is merely an insignificant manifestation of the beast: they couldn’t all be so boring in precisely the same way by chance, surely) decides to voice some Dinner Party Opinions on original-series Star Trek. God knows why. It’s not five seconds before he’s on ‘Kirk and the green women’. He’s mocking the retrosexist trope, but smiling a little weirdly while doing it. His own insufficiently private enjoyment is peeking out, like a semi-erection on his face. A sort of Mad Men effect: saying, “isn’t it awful” and going for the low-hanging critical fruit while simultaneously rolling around in that aesthetic and idea of masculinity. Camp, but no homo!

Read the full essay here.

Nonfiction End of Year Review, Award Eligibility

AWARDS

A while ago some nice people suggested Boucher, Backbone and Blake – the legacy of Blakes 7 might be Hugo-eligible under a few categories. There’s Best Related Work, there’s Best Fan Writer, etc. THIS IS VERY KIND. THANK YOU.

HOWEVER:

I really feel Best Related Work needs to go to the report, editorial and companion essays by Brian J. White, Tobias Buckell, Justina Ireland, Mikki Kendall, Nisi Shawl, Troy Wiggins, Cecily Kane and N.K. Jemisin that together comprise “#BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report”.

This collaborative project calls attention to a foundational issue in SFFnal publishing, representing the best traditions of critical, self-reflective and progressive work this award exists to recognise. Academically and practically, it is a necessary investigative report. The very model of its presentation is exciting and polyvocal, and it’d be great to see the award recognise this digital mixed-media format. Several great writers and thinkers made substantive contributions to the project. Others offered valuable reactions after the fact. The report and associated documents attracted international media attention, gave rise to editorial shifts on major SFF publications’ boards, and hopefully will spur further inclusive developments.

We should not let the memory of this work fade or its sharp, timely conclusions be overlooked. The report needs acted on, in a continuous praxis, and I believe it should also be recognised. This would show that we all feel the horrible inequalities it frankly delineates are a blight on the field, and that we are collectively serious about redressing them in the interests of both fairness and richer art. It would not definitively do so: only continuous work to dismantle systemic racism will accomplish this. But recognising the report as the most important piece of genre-related writing/the Best Related Work this year seems to me simply a just acknowledgement of a fait accompli.

As for me, I’d be happy to be considered for fan writer (though really I also think it’s past time for Abigail Nussbaum and/or Maureen K Speller to be acknowledged in that or some other capacity, but frogtea.gif).

END OF YEAR WRITING REVIEW:

STRANGE HORIZONS:

2016 In Review Part One  (my part: 270)
Yonderland (2276)

Age of Adeline (in the publishing queue, 2236)

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OTHER PUBLICATIONS:

“Control the Computer, Control the Ship”, B7 and tech SFRA paper (promised to Foundation) (4kish atm)
“From ‘Shalom Aleichem’ to ‘Live Long and Prosper’: Engaging with Post-War American Jewish Identity via Star Trek: The Original Series“: forthcoming in “Set Phasers to Teach” (6666 with all notes)
Piece on P&P&Z (still homeless, 2980)
Piece on Love&Friendship (still homeless, 4315)

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BLOG

FILM:

LITERATURE:

King John (2866)
Funny Girl (1426)

Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore (1143)

NONFIC TOTAL: 84,265

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FICTION:

Rereading (4,600, out with an anthology, waiting to hear back)

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FANFIC:

281965 words, broken down in the end of year fic meme on my lj

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Personal story planning, correspondence, essays and private-lj blogging:
endless

TOTAL (minus the substantial last category): 370,830 words this year, ‘published’ in one form or another

Bit less fiction than last year, and I really suspect less nonfic, but then moving was hideous and drawn out, mental health’s been bad and this year was draining all-’round.