Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Childhood Influences

The recent death of Carrie Fisher brought a lot of emotion out among my friends, mostly but not all related to her role in Star Wars. It set me thinking about childhood influences and how much of a role they play in our lives. Part of this is because, well, as you know I saw the films too late for them to form much of an influence, and when I did it was through a prism of political theory which probably isn't very helpful but continues to colour how I view the franchise. Eve did find them a big influence, as did a load of my other friends and so I'm left in a sort quandary, wondering what did influence me as a child.

My teens were heavily shaped by Michael Moorcock's work, and by a plethora of D&D fiction among other books. Musically I was into miserablist indie, bands like Kingmaker and the Manic Street Preachers - I wouldn't discover Goth or the delights of RPGs until I went to university. I spent most of my time lusting after Stormbringer, or having weird fantasies about an enchanted panther skin that meant I could transform into said beastie (from memory this was a particularly convoluted power fantasy where my school had been dragged through into a massive, magical rain forest and far from being a little, cowed weakling I was able to be Mr Independent with my swanky coat).  Beyond that, I was heavily into Marvel Comics, especially the X-Men with a huge amount of love for the original five, and especially Archangel.

But my childhood? I don't really know if I'm honest. The only films I remember seeing at the cinema before I was a teenager were Disney's Robin Hood, The Jungle Book (twice), Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future, which I only got to see because I pestered my Mum enough for her to come to see it with me. Cinema wasn't really part of my parents' lives, in the same way, that Fantasy and Science Fiction weren't. Beyond that the only exposure to film I really remember was when my parents had their annual cheese and wine parties and I was pushed off to perform video duties with a hired VCR and their friends' sprogs. This was usually an exercise in confirming how little I knew about Film as the guests would invariably have seen things like Sword in the Stone and had no interest in seeing it again. For my parents, these things were distractions, they were adults in the old school and had 'put away childish things', from what I recall.

I probably only got into the genres because of my Grampy, and even then I'd read his big fat book of myths before I even knew about the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. TV was the same, Colin Baker was the Doctor by the time I saw any Doctor Who*, so perhaps I missed out on the 'cower behind the sofa' years, and while I watched He-Man and played with the toys I had, it was never the huge influence that it seems to have been on other people (and my favourite toy was always Lego). To be honest, beyond the moratorium on watching Grange Hill (a children's soap opera which dealt with things like drug addiction and bullying in rather too much detail for many parents' comfort) and a desire to keep my sister and I from watching ITV as much as possible, I struggle to remember much about telly from when I was a child at all.

Books are clearer, not just the classics like Tolkien, Carrol and Lewis, but authors like Rosemary ManningRosemary Sutcliff and others. I even read some SF with a lot of clones in, which were probably what we'd call Young Adult today, but in those days were just children's books. It puts me in an odd situation where death has already claimed most of the people I would associate with growing up.

I'm not sure where that leaves me today, apart from often looking on in confusion as friends fall apart because of the high number of famous people who are dying (sadly I fear the next few years are going to be rough because we're reaching the point where the Baby Boomers are passing over in increasing numbers and us Gen X types are left holding the ball). I understand that they've been inspired by the people who are dying but to be honest, because I don't see death as a great and terrible thing and because, as I said, most of the famous people who shaped my childhood are already gone (or are connected to things in a fashion that doesn't impact on my enjoyment of said things directly), it feels odd. That's not a judgement on them, probably more of a sign that I'm disconnected from the rest of humanity.

*The age of 8 was apparently a pivotal one for me, as that's when I read Lord of the Rings, saw Dr Who, the friend who's birthday treat was see Jedi was turning 8, and I learnt my first swear word because my Dad had his nervous breakdown.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Urban Fantasy: The Nature of Cities

A boy discovers an ancient tree spirit in his local park.

An angel falls from Heaven for the love of a good woman.

Demons play Blackjack in the back room of a seedy bar.

Wizards walk unseen, casting spells to solve mysteries.

The Fae party hard at an illegal rave, and a young girl, out of her mind on Ecstasy, sees them for what they truly are.

The head of John the Baptist predicts winning lottery numbers for an old man in Catford.


Image result for urban fantasyAll these are things that can appear in urban, or contemporary, fantasy. The basic idea (as I'm sure I've said before) is to explore the 'backstage' of our modern world and to paint in fantasies that make it richer and more compelling. Turn a corner, find something magic. This provides a wellspring of ideas and scenarios. Perhaps the local statuary can be asked for solutions to problems if you know how to invoke them. Perhaps your local park has gate to places unknown stashed in a copse of trees. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. This sort of jumping off point isn't just the source of any sort of fiction, for urban fantasists, it's the start of their odyssey recording the weird backstage world of where they live, We express things we would like to find hidden in the background, or that we find annoying, or even downright rage inducing and want to take headon.

There are two approaches to achieving this, which I'll call Generic and Specific. In a Generic Urban Fantasy, the road map to setting creation largely involves taking stock elements and sprinkling them into a real world location. This means that you get vampires in one part of town, werewolves in another, and so on. It might be argued that the most famous, if far from only, version of this is the Dresden Files series of books, where Jim Butcher has literally followed this pattern (ending up with something that feels too busy to me, but which other people enjoy).  The advantage of this sort of world building is that the elements are universal and everyone will understand them - vampires in nightclubs is something that clicks, just as werewolves out in the less settled parts of town does. It is easy to grasp and it feels right, in the same way, that our protagonists being humans with magic powers, free of the disastrous needs and habits of the traditional monster, feels right. That's partly because it allows the hero to have a backstage pass to the supernatural world, they can get involved in anything that's weird and goes bump in the night that's out there, no matter who it involves. It's also, of course, because the reader is human, not a vampire so unless the story is about adjustment, about becoming a monster, the author wants to make sure their audience is comfortable and not conflicted about what's going on. Vampires may be sexy, but who wants to imagine themselves drinking blood, or turning hairy and savage under the full moon? (Okay, probably too many of you answered yes to that, and I sympathise, I'd love to be a werewolf, if it weren't for the beating my wardrobe would take).

The other thing, of course, is that the hero is usually cast into the role of detective; a side effect of that backstage pass and the investigative nature of the subgenre. This may stem from the fact that behind the fiction lies the roleplaying games created by White Wolf Games Studio (amongst others) in the 1990s. These were largely investigative and focused upon playing the monster but also involved dealing with societies that had grown up out of various groups of monsters meeting. So they were detective games as well as political games and in addition to being leavened with a good sprinkle of combat.  In addition, they attracted a number of non-traditional gamers, in the form of women, LGBTQ players and others to the table, which almost certainly led to a knock on effect with regards to urban fantasy fiction.

The downsides of the Generic approach is that they make the worlds the same and that runs the risk of boredom. There's only so much you can do with the various monsters in the world, and unless you start reaching for weirder ones you're essentially tied to a set of beings who exist in very specific forms in the modern imagination (try selling a vampire who isn't vaguely Byronic and see how it goes). The style of story is great for setting up stories but at the same time, it means the characters are never normal people, which means they're perfect intercessors for us as readers but that they are essentially static, they're never going to have a real moment where the scales fall from their eyes and they're confronted with how weird the world actually is.

This is where the Specific model comes in - if Generic is Harry Dresden then we might say that Specific is Richard Richard Mayhew Dick from Neverwhere. Within a specific build, we may still find traditional monsters but they'll be less common and it's more likely that the takes on them will be more individualistic. Think Neverwhere's Velvets or the vampires from The Stress of Her Regard, rather than the off the peg vampire. Often Specific build settings are used for single novels, rather than for series, there isn't any need for the stories to feed into a larger world because they exist only for the duration of the novel. This doesn't mean that they don't have the depth and clarity that a series brings to the table, only that the author isn't expecting to return to them (which is good and bad). So, the Floating Market in London Below is as iconic as the bar in the Dresden Files, or Mahogany Row in the Laundry Files for that matter.

What strikes me, often, is that Specific urban fantasy is tailored to the places it features - you couldn't uproot Neverwhere and put it somewhere else, in Paris or New York you would have to re-tailor it to fit those cities and in doing so create something specific again. Tim Powers' work often wouldn't work anywhere but in the places he puts it and I wonder if there's a difference here in that the Specific creations are often designed to delve into one story, one aspect of humanity rather than being designed to be the detective story with some magic in. This would account for the difference in protagonists too, where the Generic protagonist is the detective, canny, wise, but an outsider, the Specific urban fantasy character is often an ingenue, pushed into situations, worlds, they don't understand by forces beyond their control. .Hence, Richard Mayhew falling through the cracks into London Below because of one act of kindness, or Janis Plumtree being dragged into a scheme to assassinate the Fisher King because of mental health issues. They may not return to the safety of the world they knew, a common feature of urban fantasy is that once exposed to the hidden world you can never go home again.

This focus on specificity makes these novels shine as they explore the nature of the places they're set in, rather than producing something that's smoothed down to simply be a vehicle for a narrative. To take Powers' Last Call for instance, the cards - and their symbolism - and dependence on luck are what made the novel not just urban fantasy but a Las Vegas urban fantasy story. The idea that gamblers had their own, specific kind of magic, added to this, in a way that the more generic nature of magic in long form series of novels does not.

Neither approach is better than the other, though Specific feels more 'literary' to me than Generic. I also do prefer it slightly, as I've grown tired of the idea that monsters can be dropped willy-nilly into settings with no thought as to character or consequence. I also prefer books that are slightly challenging to read (too easy and it gets boring) and often find the detective characters come across as unpleasant idiots rather than people I want to root for. Plus, I like things weird.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Feminism and Writing

In today's post, Cara Mckee talks about feminism and writing.



There are still women who write under non-gendered, or even typically male names (Robin Hobb, and JK Rowling spring immediately to mind), and it still makes sense to do that even though it’s 2016.

Writing is what I do now (blogging at Caralmckee.blogspot.co.uk and mainly writing poems – I’ve been shortlisted in this year’s Great British Write Off). I’m happy to have the opportunity, but I also need work which fits around looking after my children with a husband who often has to work away.

Like much of women’s work, my writing is undervalued. I often get asked to work for ‘exposure,’ something I note a lot of writers get asked to do, although it does seem to be more of an issue for women (in my experience), whose writing is often seen as a hobby, rather than men, who are struggling artists, trying to make ends meet (let’s face it, most writers don’t get paid a lot). Perhaps this is related to book sales, because it is still true that while women will buy books by men or women, men mainly buy books by men, and publishers need to go where the money is. There are plenty of women writers, but less published ones, and of those, they tend to get less attention. I was recently at a workshop on SciFi writing, lots of authors were recommended, but none of them were women. I asked why and was told there weren’t many women SciFi authors because women aren’t really into that kind of thing. I started listing women (because I’m a difficult woman), but to little avail I fear.

The matter of women’s lives is also often seen as light or irrelevant. I’ve seen lots of programmes focusing on the politics of male dominated office spaces, but hardly anything on the politics of the toddler group.

I used to write a column for my local paper for ‘exposure.’ I quit when I realised that the other two columnists (both men, who already worked on the paper) were doing it for the money. I now get paid to write a column for a parenting magazine which was just voted the best new magazine in Scotland. It’s important not to accept having your work undervalued.

I suspect that once we are successful in the next part of gender equality, recognising the value of caring and home-work, and getting more men involved in that stuff, then we might see more recognition for women writers and women’s stories.


Until then I’m going to keep talking about women writers, to let other people know all the good stuff there is to find, emerging poets like Katharine MacFarlane and Iona Lee https://ionalee23.wordpress.com/ brilliant authors like Eowyn Ivey http://eowynivey.com/ and Naomi Alderman http://www.naomialderman.com/ (who also writes games), and awesome bloggers like Maddy at Writer’s Bubble http://writingbubble.co.uk/ and Sara at Mum Turned Mom http://mumturnedmom.com/ and me of course. I’m chuffing awesome. Check out my blog at caralmckee.blogspot.co.uk or find my poems in the latest copy of 404 Ink magazine http://www.404ink.com/ or in Allegro Poetry http://www.allegropoetry.org/p/issue-11.html

Monday, 12 December 2016

Post Brexit Nightmare

Yes, I'm blogging about Brexit again... Or more accurately what I fear will happen after we leave the EU. I hope this is hyperbole, but I fear that it won't be, simply because the calibre of politicians we have is pretty bad.

Let's assume, to begin with, that the negotiations are over in time, that by October 2018 the UK has left the EU. What then? We will essentially be sitting without economic ties, free trade deals or anything else. Those will take up to seven years to sort out, and we're now being warned that trade with our former EU partners is going to become more expensive, while CETA, the trade deal between the EU and Canada took about 20 years. So we run the risk of over a decade without the lucrative trade deals that Liam Fox is so keen to promise are just hanging there like low hanging fruit. My concern here is three-fold. First, as I've said before manufacturing only accounts for 10% of the UK's GDP, second Mr. Cameron's targets for competition in actually making things were India and China, which are basic secondary economies. This is telling, there is no plan to allow us to compete with Canada, the USA, Japan, or Germany. As ever the UK is washing its hands of actually making things, in a move that is an echo of our reluctance to adapt to the secondary stages of the Industrial Revolution or, in the 1970s, to grow our computer industry. The same appears to be true here, there is no plan, for example, to take advantage of our mass of coastline to develop tidal electric power, and then sell it overseas. Or, as we are fairly involved in the arms industry, why not build on our maritime past by developing stealth boats or a new wave of naval vessels? Since we'll be more dependent on the sea post Brexit we could work on developing ways to defend our shipping lanes.

This brings me to the third thing I fear, that leaving the EU will open the UK up to more asset stripping, multinational companies that don't have any intention to do anything beyond buy up our industries up cheap and gut them in the name of a quick buck. If there are factories attached they will be moved to somewhere cheaper (as Kraft did with Cadbury's) and we will only see an increase in the flow of jobs to places like India and China (our two great rivals, apparently). George Monbiot has outlined the dangers facing the democratic world from transnational capital here, far more eloquently and knowledgeably than I can. My basic analysis would be: company gets very big, puts lots of lawyers in pockets, uses said legal professionals to run rings around governments and get their own way. Company bad. Nod head. Get treat.

This sort of activity is nothing new, it's been the norm for about the last thirty years or so, and stems directly from the adoption of neoliberal economics by both Mr.s Thatcher and President Reagan. It's bracketed by the idea that the state should not be involved in the market, not even for long term investment. At one point it was assumed that this would be beneficial, Thomas Friedman's Golden Arches of Diplomacy was written for a reason, even if it no longer holds true. But the reality is that as the corporate sector has grown, it has become less accountable, more likely to greenwash and to sidestep laws it dislikes and to sue governments over decisions that affect profits. For example, Philip Morris sued the Australian government over packaging legislation that carried health warnings. The danger for Britain is that, if we have no trade deals, and if the government of the day deems the EU to be 'difficult' (as it apparently already does because Brussels is playing by its rules rather than wheeling and dealing in the fashion the Three Brexiteers seem to favour) that regulations and taxes to lure investors.

This is bad news. For us, I mean. There'll be no consequence for the businesses, nor I'm sure for Messrs. Davis, Fox, and Johnson. I imagine too that the Prime Minister will sit pretty in those very expensive leather trousers. But for the rest of us, it seems to suggest that the future of work in the UK might be low paid, semi-skilled and based on zero hours contracts, with the blessing of Westminster. It suggests the minimum wage will vanish, that workplace benefits will disappear and that we will sink into the sort of dead end economy that will do nothing for most of us. More, if those regulations cover environmental measures as well, we can expect more air pollution, perhaps even a return to the UK being the dirty man of Europe.

The question then becomes, will the public accept that? Recent polling has shown that the UK will not accept a cut in living standards or wages. But as the things that have caused mass unemployment in some parts of the country (it should be noted that at present the UK only has 5% unemployment, which is considered to be full employment by economists), will not have changed, and most of the UK's immigrants come from outside the EU.... The question is whether on the surface the things that apparently matter most to the people who cared about the Brexit aspect of the referendum will see anything actually change. If not, then there's a problem, especially if a) no new jobs are created and b) food become more expensive.

At this point we might see a slide towards the far right, politically, because hungry, desperate people are more likely to vote for change than something they see as maintaining the status quo (there's evidence the conflict in Syria was caused by a spike in food prices rather than Daesh being entirely like a supervillain and rubbing their hands together while they cackle). From there we might see a spike in racist crime or even attacks on women - in the same way that soldiers attacked women doing 'men's jobs after World War One. The nation slides into extremism because nobody trusts the news because there are no jobs, no food and the country has been sold out to foreign powers... albeit economic rather than political ones. Throw in an embattled health service and declining environment and you have a recipe for revolution and a 'purity' drive (because those are always a good thing, right?)

This feels like it could happen, to me, though as I said it is hyperbole. Or at least I hope it is. My concern, as I hope I've illustrated above is that there is no new politics really coming to the fore. Nobody seems to have a clue what to do once Brexit has been achieved and that worries me.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Content


Image result for monkey

Just a quick note, as I've gone freelance to ask what sort of things you'd like to see on the blog. I'm conscious that contrary to received wisdom I blog about a fair number of things, from subculture, politics and 'real world stuff all the way to book reviews and gaming stuff.

Is there anything you'd like me, as readers, to focus upon?

I've thrown together a quick survey, so could you do me a favour and fill it out, please?

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/SW3LT3T

Also, could you give the ads on the site an occasional click, please? (kthnkx)

The Myth of Brexit



Back in June the UK voted to leave the EU by a narrow margin. Since that time, it's been interesting to watch what's happened not in terms of the negotiations or the UK's official voyage in leaving the EU but in the sense of the way that the vote has been perceived. In particular, it has become interesting to watch how the vote to Leave has metamorphosed from a slight majority to an all-encompassing desire to leave on behalf of the nation (just look at the Prime Minister's speech at the Tory Party Conference this year for more of that), and the way that it's become largely about immigration - consider the many 'throw it at the wall and see if we can get away with it' plans the Home Secretary Amber Rudd is trotting out. The way they speak it is as if the vast majority of the country was opposed to EU membership, rather than it being a 4% difference between Remain and Leave. That overlooks that Nigel Farage, formerly of UKIP, has admitted that if the situation had been reversed he would have continued campaigning. That is his right, of course, but the same courtesy is not being extended to the 'Remainers' who are concerned that Brexit will do more harm than good. It is as if the very people who were demanding a democratic voice now want to wipe out any chance of others having the same rights. Just witness Farage's response to Gina Miller's court case against the Theresa May's use of the royal prerogative (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgIib_Uj1T4) or his hinting at mob violence if Brexit isn't honoured.  


This is deeply troubling as it suggests that there is nothing but disruption ahead and that one side will throw their teddies out of the pram at the first opportunity. Already the electorate in Sleaford and North Hykeham, who are voting in a byelection today, are questioning why we are still part of the EU and a number of people I've seen online have suggested that the leaving process should be as simple as just triggering Article 50 and walking off, presumably into the sunset. This, of course, is a vast oversimplification of the process and only confirms that most of us shouldn't be in charge of running the country. But part of the myth is that it's easy and that we will get our sovereignty back (I'm not convinced of that especially given that the Brexit Secretary David Davis is saying that we'll have to pay for access to the Common Market and that there may be more things to pay for than we expect).

Image result for Farage immigration poster
The other aspect of the myth is that everybody who voted Leave did so out of hatred of the EU and concerns over immigration. Certainly Farage stirred up concerns over the latter with the now infamous poster of lines of people who were 'queueing up to get into Britain'. By the time he apologised for it, the damage was done, immigration and an underhand appeal to both nativism and racism was out of the bag and the apology meant nothing. He had let the cat out of the bag and there was no doubt that a slice of the electorate (the one that contained Thomas Mair) had had their feelings validated. One need only look at the rise in the attacks on EU citizens and people of colour in the wake of the referendum to see that. Honestly, when three European governments are talking about sending police representatives to the UK investigate attacks on their citizens, you know something has gone wrong.

Further to that, it's apparent from research at Warwick University (here reported in the Boar: https://theboar.org/2016/10/austerity-main-reason-behind-brexit-warwick-report-claims/) that the main reason people voted Leave was austerity. It was a way to give the government a bloody nose, nothing more. Most of these voters don't expect Brexit to be followed through on and have already consigned it to the bin marked 'politicians' broken promises'. This is one of the things that differentiates Leave and Remain. The latter largely voted to stay in the EU for similar reasons, some level of belief in the European project, even if that was simply down to trade (personally it was a mixture of things from Human Rights, concerns over environmental issues and the fact that in the age of transnational capital I simply don't believe that a single nation can do anything on its own - we need supranational political structures to fight supranational capitalism). The Leave vote, however, seems to have been fractured into a large number of reasons and if the EU wasn't actually a truly motivating factor, then Brexit will do nothing to mollify the discontent we're seeing in the nation. It feels as if a cancer patient is being prescribed band aids, because that's what seems to be wrong with them. Leaving the EU seems to me to be the course of action that will only entrench inequality and austerity and I'm not sure how we move out of that without taking on transnational capital (which we have just given every reason to vote with their feet and take their manufacturing plants to mainland Europe).

Buzzfeedhave a breakdown of who voted which way which is interesting, and does point to the influence of the Press as a major factor in deciding how people voted.

The case for Brexit feels as if it's been laid over eggs, one hard step and we're going to get mucky feet. While I, grudgingly, accept that the country is going to leave the EU, I greatly fear the future. It feels very much as if we're walking down a darkened lane, just waiting to be mugged or to learn that the safe looking house is full of monsters. Worse, those monsters now seem likely to be us.