Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The Word for World is Forest – a retro review

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‘As a fiction writer, I don’t speak message, I speak story…’ This is something Le Guin believed, even towards the end of her long and distinguished career. The statement was partly in exasperated response to school librarians and teachers asking her for books with the ‘message’ front-loaded. Philip Pullman, a writer very different in tone than Le Guin but no less ambitious in his grappling with big ideas about the human condition and the nature of reality, has experienced a similar problem. In discussing avoiding didactism in his writing Pullman said: ‘Ideas are best conveyed by making them look not like ideas at all, but events.’ Le Guin, in this slim novel first published in 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, has tried to do just that – not by offering a polemic, but by dramatizing the problem – the wearily familiar dynamic of an aggressively Capitalist colonial power subjugating and exploiting the indigenous inhabitants for the purposes of extracting the maximum amount of wealth (resources, either in the form of slave labour or mineral wealth, or both), no matter the cost to the ecosystem, its biodiversity, and the lives of the aboriginal dwellers. This rapacious pattern (the inevitable manifestation of ‘progress without limits’, and ‘free trade’, the mantra of late Capitalism, Neoliberalism ) has played out throughout humanity history – although that should not make it normative. We come to think of it as the only game in town, and ‘the way things are’, when, with enough willpower, other ways are possible and other worlds. In Le Guin’s story – set within the archipelago of novels exploring the Hainish universe (an advanced intellectual race who may or may not be the progenitors of human kind) – the author transposes this pattern onto a distant planet. Although it is forgivable to see the echoes of the Vietnam conflict, by setting the action on a richly Tropical planet the human colonists call ‘New Tahiti’ Le Guin creates the cognitive estrangement which defamiliarizes us and makes us see the situation anew. Here, both sides are flawed, moral dualisms become enmeshed in complexity, and the obvious empathic leap, identifying with the diminutive hirsute natives (the Athsheans as the literal ‘underdogs’) starts to feel uncomfortable when we see them enacting ‘war crimes’ against the Colonist just as heinous as those they have endured. The cycle of violence seems inexorable until the arrival of a passing ship from Earth, the Shackleton, conveying Hainish and Cetian ambassadors and an ‘ansible’ (interplanetary communicator) changes the rules of the game. Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist, and her exposure to his discipline and careful methodology informs not only this, but much of her work – yet here it is foregrounded in the figure of Raj Lyubov, a ‘spesh’ (specialist) who has deep sympathies for the Athsheans after learning their language and studying their sophisticated dream-praxis. Yet although Lyubov’s frustrated attempts to ameliorate the brutish treatment of the ‘Creechies’ (as the inhabitants are dehumanised), and wanton destruction of the sylvan biome (the extraction of the incredibly valuable timber drives the ‘annexing’ of the planet) are for a while the main line of desire, ultimately Lyubov is seen as an emasculated protagonist, amid the ultra-machismo of the military endeavour (which Le Guin darkly satirizes: the staccato jargon, testosterone-pumped behaviour, and self-destructing madness mirroring Heller’s Catch-22). As the viewpoint shifts to Selver, the Athshean rebel figurehead ‘god’, it is easy to assume we are going to fall into a classic rebellion narrative – Robin Hood in space; but Le Guin has more sophisticated fish to fry. To say more than that would involve spoilers; but the whole, brief novel (practically a novella) is familiar to movie-goers across the world, for James Cameron Avatar feels like a very loose, unofficial ‘revisioning’ of it. However, those expecting things to play out in a similar way will be deeply surprised. Le Guin is not one to go for the crowdpleasing payoffs. Her universe is more complex than that. In such a short ‘novel’ it is perhaps inevitable that the characters will seem (relatively) thinly-sketched: Captain Davidson, the violent, indignant antagonist, is the least convincing; although there is nothing simple about Mr Lepennon, the Hainish visitor, or the troubled reluctant messiah, Selver. What comes across most authentically amid the ambitious thought experiment of it all (the logical endgame of infinite growth on a galactic stage) is Le Guin’s cri-de-coeur for the protection of precious habitats, the biodiversity of life they contain, and the autonomous rights of those who dwell among them. Environmental awareness was developing when she wrote the book, but it feels increasingly prescient in an age of Climate Chaos and the latest IPCC report urging governments to act now before it is too late. As such, Le Guin’s book is a message in a bottle from the future – but one that interweaves that ‘message’ very skilfully into the texture of the narrative, challenging us as readers: confronting us with our assumptions and complicities. But that is to make it sound abstract and intellectual, when in essence it is an Adventure Story told at a cracking pace. To let Le Guin have the last word: ‘The complex meanings of a serious story or novel can be understood only by participation in the language of the story itself. To translate them into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them.’

Kevan  Manwaring

The Alien DJ

 

Dodgy Space Themes album

A crime to art, music and science fiction, but this dodgy 1978 album got me hooked.

 

Is it me or am I the only one who finds it hard to separate Sci-Fi from soundtrack? It is almost impossible to think of the opening credits of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope without the adrenalin-surge of John Williams’ classic theme-tune blasted out to the backstory disappearing to its vanishing point (or Darth Vader and his stormtroopers without the Imperial march); the shock and awe of the apocalyptic opening of Blade Runner without the vertiginous electronica of Vangelis; and the opening of Kubrick/Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have the same sturm-und-drang impact with Richard Strauss’s ‘sunrise’ from Also sprach Zarathustra.

Growing up a Sci-Fi addict (thanks to Lucas’ gateway drug that made me watch anything with Special FX in however risible, and it often was) I received my ‘hit’ often via the opening credits and theme tune of classic TV shows such as Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Thunderbirds, Dr Who, Blake’s Seven, Star Trek, and The Prisoner. 

And as an adult connoisseur of big screen Fantastika, I often find myself enthralled as much by the soaring soundtracks as much as the visuals – as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix, Sunshine, Interstellar, Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049 to name but a few.  

So it is no surprise to discover that during the writing of my novels I often have an ‘unofficial soundtrack’ running in the back of my mind. Perhaps this is why I need to write in silence, as I need to be able to tune into this internal symphony – the mood and movement that underscores the scene or chapter I am writing. Sometimes actual music is cited in the prose. In my science fiction thriller, Black Box, the protagonist listens to Chinese death metal while out on the ice, conducting one of his endless routine maintenance circuits of the vast ice-shelf he is tasked to transport to the ends of the galaxy. Back in his tugship, out of his suit, Lake relaxes to Hendrix while shooting up an artificial opiate he has managed to synthesise. Other settings required different tracks, evoking a different ambience – very few of these are explicit, but they nuanced my depiction of each, through diction, description, and pacing – the micro-choices that create tone.

If, in some fortunate future, my novel gets turned into a movie – which since it was first conceived as one, would be a satisfying full circle – then I hope the director will choose one of the fine composers out there (Hans Zimmer, for instance!) to score it rather than opt for the populist ‘mix-tape’ approach, which worked for The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy — initially, a refreshingly iconoclastic contra-tonal device, but one that’s become something of a cliché, a lazy form of film-making (like the cheesy pop song montage sequence of the 80s it emulates) that does a disservice to the craft of the film composer, the under-rated geniuses of modern cinema, for it is they who translate the music of the spheres into reality.

Black Box is being published by Unbound – with your help! Pledge your support and pre-order a copy via this link: https://unbound.com/books/black-box/

 

Gods Playing Dice

Writing and RPGs

 

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The classic edition of Traveller, Game Designer’s Workshop, 1977

 

As a young man back in the spiked, crimped velveteen 80s I spent many an happy hour enjoying sessions of role-playing games (now suddenly fashionable). These undoubtedly nurtured my writerly imagination for it is through them I caught the bug for storytelling and creating detailed scenarios. The three systems that enthralled me the most were the classic version of Dungeon & Dragons, Call of Cthulu (based upon the works of HP Lovecraft) and Traveller – through them I experienced the immersive delights of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. It is the latter that is particularly on my radar at the moment, for my SF novel, Black Box, is ready for launch (being published through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound). Although the novel has been consciously informed by a lifetime of reading and watching SF, by Climate Change, and by research into space exploration and artificial intelligence at the University of Leicester where I’m currently completing my PhD, looking back I realise that those lively sessions with fellow schoolmates (in particular Garrie Fletcher, who has gone onto to become a wordsmith too) really nurtured the ‘SF brain’ part of me. With its stylish series of black manuals, and hard edge, Traveller was always the coolest of the RPGs, the Fonz of the whole Happy Days bunch. Each session, usually held around ‘Budgie’s house’, another schoolmate from Mereway, felt like being inside an episode of one of our favourite TV shows – Blake’s 7, Dr Who, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (this was pre-Firefly days and that show in particular captures the maverick freebooting attitude of the game – a motley crew taking on some dodgy mission for a fistful of credits, normally running the gauntlet of the Imperium, space pirates and hostiles). The main benefit of these games was, of course, the social angle – lifesaving for a bunch of awkward nerds (speaking personally): the sessions were some of the most enjoyable spent as a teenager – hearty laughter, shared creativity, and heart-pumping excitement. But in hindsight, as someone who has made writing the heart of their career, I see other spinoffs that have a direct benefit to novelists: immersiveness (far more visceral than any virtual reality); multilinearity (complex branching narratives effected by one’s choices); storytelling (how to engage and sustain an audience, create narrative traction, suspense and tension); characterisation (designing vivid characters, improvising dialogue); the importance of setting (almost a character in its own right – certainly spaceships can be); and fictionality (the giddy freedom of making stuff up, spinning a yarn, and weaving worlds out of thin air). These have all become of primary importance in my novel-writing. Of course novels seem, on the surface, less multi-cursory and multi-player – they are a direct interface between author and reader (although they can be shared by millions) – but in the composition of them, the malleability of the plot, the behaviour of the characters, and the volatility of the structure, makes it feel like being in a ‘session’ as DM,  player-characters, and non-player characters – a schizophrenic’s paradise. Aspects of your personality talk back at you: shock, astound and devastate – and you risk coming across as a complete loon, bursting out laughing or crying out in frustration at a screen. Anything can happen in the white void of the blank page. The lonely long-haul of writing a novel may lack the sociability of a RPG (except in the camaraderie with fellow writers and, if you’re lucky, readers), but in compensation one has complete creative control (eventually, if the wild beast of the book can be tamed sufficiently). It can bring out the emperor-god-being in you, the tyrannical deity that plucky characters loved to frustrate. As with the best DMs, who run a game ‘dice-light’, biasing the flow of storytelling over a punctilious compliance with the rules, the best writers always allow their characters to have a lucky break now and then, and to steal the show over a mechanical fulfilment of plot. And writers weaned on RPGs will always remember who the narrative is ultimately for – not the ‘god behind the screen’ but the reader-participant.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 30 April

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Play It Again: Blade Runner 2049

 

 

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Eco-SF or Sucking it Dry? Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve, 2017

A Review

 

I went to see this film with great anticipation, and a little anxiety, for the original (Blade Runner, Scott, 1982) has a kind of ‘sacred’ status to me, having been such a massively influential experience when I snuck in to see it at the cinema aged 12. Having watched in many times since (and listened to the Vangelis soundtrack on a kind of loop throughout my teenage years) it has grafted itself onto my consciousness until it has become almost part of my identity – a constructed memory, imported into my mind. Take it away, and would I still be the same person? I was hoping the long-time-coming sequel by the Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, (who had impressed me and the critics with Arrival) wasn’t going to steal my dreams, as so often happens when films are remade or rebooted. Hollywood, intellectually bankrupt these days, it seems, has turned to remaking its own successes –safe bets in hard times, feeding on people’s craving for the comfort drug of the past, nostalgia. The present is dysfunctional, the future unbearable, so only the past remains in which to seek shelter – even when that past is a hauntingly bleak vision of a dystopian future. Rewatching Scott’s masterpiece it strikes me how much of it is about the past – people living in the ghosts of cities amid the wreckage of their lives, clinging onto precious shards of memory; the Marlowe-esque presence of Deckard (even sans voice-over Bogie’s spectre informs his performance); the retro hairstyled ‘ice-maiden’ (Rachael the replicant); the multi-cultural melange that could be out of Casablanca, Edward James Olmos’ Gaff with his city-speak a kind of one-man version of that city; the haunted city of shadows like an echo of post-war Vienna from The Third Man; the double-coding of the Tyrell Corporation’s pyramid-like HQ and the classical grandeur of the executive level; the art-deco/neo-Fascist Union Station police station; and of course the crumbling elegance of The Bradbury.

Blade Runner 2049 takes this idea and runs with it. Set 30 years after the events of the original, Ryan Gosling’s replicant blade runner ‘K’ spends a lot of the time wandering around vast old ruins, working out which memories are real, which are fabricated, echoing what it feels like to return to the cinema 35 years after seeing the first film (that Ur-cinema itself an art-deco ghost). As soon as the opening shots appeared – an extreme close-up of an eye cutting to a vast iris-shaped solar farm extending to a field of them extending into the haze – underpinned by the pulsating electronic  Wallfisch/Zimmer soundtrack I knew I was in safe hands. Rather than try to replicate (excuse the pun) the classic ‘apocalyptic sublime’ of the original – the Hades landscape of an environmental disaster zone Los Angeles 2019, which had such a deep impact on an impressionable 12 year old, Villeneuve drew upon a scene cut from the original screenplay for Hampton Fancher (then called ‘Dangerous Days’). With Fancher back on board as the writer, the scene (which was going to be the opening of Blade Runner) consolidates the sense of a movie haunting itself. This time it is K in the role of ‘Rick’ (Gosling a chip off the old block, like a younger Harrison Ford). The twist is that K is ‘outed’ pretty much straight away, dispensing with the existential question of the original – in which it is implied Deckard himself is a replicant (as the unicorn dream/unicorm origami implies); and the fact of Deckard’s continued existence evaporates any doubts about his flesh-and-blood credentials. According to recent interviews, Ford said he always played Deckard as a human; it was Scott who wanted him to be a replicant. So, in a way, both possibilities exist in the original – giving it the Buddhist koan resonance. Here, the paradox is retired. And yet the film is still a masterful meditation on the nature of reality (trademark Philip K Dick territory); on metaphysical concerns (which have often haunted Scott’s work) around origins, around creators and their creations. It is a poem of light and dark. Set after ‘the Blackout’, an event that crashed and wiped the world’s computers, this Los  Angeles is less ‘neon’ than the original – in the original light intersected every scene, moved about it, was an active presence. 2049, masterfully lit by Roger Deakin, is darker – despite it having several day scenes (Blade Runner was largely filmed at night because of the restriction of a filming on a Hollywood backlot – it was one of Scott’s tricks to make up for a lack of budget). The sky is a perpetual sepia haze. America has become a denuded wasteland, has become Mars (and The Martian Chronicles goes full circle). Shadows, rather than night, dominate each scene, threatening to engulf it entire. Deakin lights each set piece like Caravaggio, deploying that master’s trademark chiaroscuro. And in the visual illusions he plays upon our eyes, he homages another master, De Chirico. ‘The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’ is a frequent visual reference; in the giant figures through which K walks, ‘Melancholia’; and in the Piranesian architecture, a homage to the original. Villeneuve , to his credit, eschews CGI for model and matte shots – giving the whole thing a suitably old school ‘analogue’ feel.  The magisterial pace of the film some may find ‘slow’ but I found it a refreshing contrast to the attention-deficit teenage-screen-tested biff-bang-pow of most mainstream movies these days. This is an elegant spinner of a movie – gliding along in a dream-like fashion. It lacks the adrenalin-pumping edge of the original, which simultaneously managed to achieve a metaphysical register in a fraction of the time. Scott’s visions was the blueprint, and this works to that, extending it but not necessarily adding to it. Nothing is taken away – it is a towering tribute to the original – but nothing is really added either. In many ways, we didn’t ‘need’ this film – but that’s where we’re at. As PKD would say, ‘we can remember it for you, wholesale’. Nevertheless, it a well-acted, well-scripted, well-made film. This is a journeyman work of a director who I suspect is going to keep astounding us for, hopefully, years to come.

Kevan Manwaring 17 Oct. 17

 

 

 

Song of the Windsmith

‘I am the windsmith … I summon the air…’

Song of the Windsmith Premiere, Castle of the Muses, Scotland, Autumn Equinox 2012

Song of the Windsmith Premiere, Castle of the Muses, Scotland, Autumn Equinox 2012

A year ago, sitting on a cliff overlooking the Severn Bridge with my friend James Hollingsworth, we sketched out a show based upon my series of novels, The Windsmith Elegy. By a bonfire, we watched the sun set over the Welsh hills – it was the Spring Equinox. The awen flowed and ideas fell into place – using nine bones (boiled down from a five volume, half a million word novel series) we blocked out an outline, a story arc, around which songs (from James’ repertoire) would be woven. A year on and we have just come back from the sixth performance of Song of the Windsmith – the multi-media show which resulted in that initial equinoctial brainstorm. As the project developed other artists came on board – Jonathan Hayter, a shadow-puppeteer from Cornwall; Miriam Schafer, a belly-dancer from Munich; and Rob Goodman, actor and director from London. Each artist brought their own talent, experience and ideas; it was exciting seeing how they re-interpreted the Windsmith story in their own way. They took the initial inspiration and danced with it – in from these component parts we fashioned an ‘insane machine’ of Edwardian fantasy. Thus was born The Steampunk Theatre Company – our DIY, Heath Robinsonesque approach mutating my sometimes fey ‘visionary epic’ intp the trendy subgenre of Science Fiction, Steampunk (in brief, the past’s vision of the future). Suddenly we were as cool as Dr Who! Adopting a slightly whimsical approach, our motto became:

‘Backwards into the Future!’

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The Lit’n’Roll show based upon The Windsmith Elegy – Song of the Windsmith – was launched at the Castle of the Muse, Argyle, Scotland, on 22nd September. James Hollingsworth & Kevan Manwaring, co-founders of The Steampunk Theatre Company, took the high road to the wilds of Scotland to perform a special preview of the show to a select audience of international guests. The response was overwhelmingly favourable. Here’s a review by Lilian Helen Brzoska

These guys are BRILLIANT Bardic Performers. James Hollingsworth is on the guitar, a wizard of flying fingers and glorious tones. He also sings spectacularly well. Kevan Manwaring’s ” Song of the Windsmith” is a perfect winged chariot for them both to fly, lifting through many spheres and dropping to the Earth’s Core with adept aplomb and engaged Heart energy. Kevan is a beautiful Being with great acting talent and a wisdom far deeper and wider than his youthful surface might predict, should you be hooked on looks. They are both beautiful to behold and deeply moving as they perform this mythic treat and mystical performance power-sharing to awaken the soul of each listener, each seer, each brother and sister Bard. If you get a chance to experience a performance of ” The Windsmith ” grab the tickets with both hands and take along your whole family. Your will all hear a very fine story told with Light, Love and Honesty. Teenage sons and daughters, will find older brothers with whom to explore the inner reaches of the Human Condition with warmth, political awareness and Eco-Centric Wisdom.

Visit http://www.educationaid.net for information about ongoing events at the International Institute of Peace Studies and Global Philosophy.

Watch some of the actual performance on Youtube here

After the premiere, we soared in our steam airship to the southern ‘hemisphere’ of the United Kingdoms. Anchoring our zeppelin off St Michael’s Mount, we performed at the Acorn, Penzance – this time joined by  ‘Ze Baron’, aka Jonathan Hayter, shadow-puppeteer extraordinaire – who VJed his lightbox puppetry with digital animation. Wunderbar!

Ze Baron joins us at the Acorn gig, Penzance.

Ze Baron joins us at the Acorn gig, Penzance.

A show in my home town of Stroud was essential – at Open House Hall. In the audience was Kim Kenny, from Theatre Gloucestershire, who said afterwards:

‘Surprising and refreshing – something I would like to see more of… I loved the music and how it underscored your powerful storytelling. The visual images too added another dimension.’ (Kim Kenny, Theatre Gloucestershire)

As a result, we took part in a Made in Gloucestershire showcase at the Cheltenham Everyman in early Feb. It was perhaps too much for the nice folk of Cheltenham HQ. We realised it was for a niche audience, ie one with imagination!

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We ended the year with a performance for the Wessex Research Group in Totnes, organised (I use the term loosely) by our friend Jeffrey Gale. We hibernated over the winter, to rejuvernate our bardic batteries, before hitting the road last week for a very special homecoming gig on the Spring Equinox in Northampton – Kevan’s old home town – at a fab monthly bardic night hosted by my old partners in rhyme Justin Thyme and Jimtom. It was most touching to have some old friends in the crowd – folk I hadn’t seen for years. Out of all the audiences we’ve had so far, this lot really got it.

Windsmiths of Equinoxes Past

Windsmiths of Equinoxes Past

Feedback from Raising the Awen, Northampton Labour Club, 20th March

‘music was superb, brilliant voice … was really moved by 2 sections, the love/bit/section made my eyes fill’

‘Brilliant, fantastic storytelling and music, very animated and original’

‘fabulous meandering monologue and mystical marvellous music, more more more!!!’

‘Interesting, and the music was great … when the music started I was happily surprised, so thank you.’

‘I liked the songs reminded me of The Who. Can see the whole thing being made into a bigger production with lots of visual. A very professional performance.’

‘Top quality. Excellent music and storyline.’

‘They can come again pleeeeaaaassse!!!???’ twice!

‘Swept away by the the words, music and song.

‘A magical story so perfectly musicated.’

‘Guitar Genius’

Waterstones goes Steampunk!

Waterstones goes Steampunk!

On the Saturday after (23rd March) I did a book-signing in Waterstones, Northampton. This was part of a fabulous Steampunk Season, which involves a month of related author events. The nice in-house events team did do some brilliant posters. Despite the lovely signage, footfall was low – kaiboshed by unexpected cold-snap. Wintry easterlies brought snow and ice – which made the ride home extremely challenging. Nearly got frostbite (I couldn’t move my hands at one point – not good on a bike!). It’s hard being a bard…

The Windsmith Elegy launch, Waterstones Northampton, 23 March 2013

The Windsmith Elegy launch, Waterstones Northampton, 23 March 2013

The Signs are out there...

The Signs are out there…

We have one more show scheduled (so far) in the Bath Fringe, June 9th – at a masonic hall! (Old Theatre Royal, Bath). After this, who knows where the windsmiths will blow next…? There is a plan to record the show for posterity – and create a CD or DVD of it. The O2 Arena gig will have to wait until we have finished making holograms of ourselves. Oo-lllaaaa!!!!

I’ll leave you with the words of our elusive Steampunk propheteer, Bartholomew Copperpipe:

‘Yesterday’s future is ours!’