The Colonial Offspring Theory of International Relations

I was reminded me of an observation I had recently, that the colonial offspring of Great Britain are like poorly raised children.

You have Canada, the good natured quiet child, who grew up to be a productive member of society, with a steady job and colorful hobbies that it pursues in it’s well-managed spare time. The only bad thing to say about Canada is that it has a rocky relationship with its angry gay son, Quebec. Also, it lets it’s siblings take advantage of it, especially America.

Australia is the neglected middle child. Extremely creative and rebellious in its youth, it’s trying to pull its life together and sort out its issues. It means well but it’s troubled past and a stubborn streak often gets in the way of progress. Will eventually sober up and get its shit together, but not for lack of America constantly trying to tempt it into ill-advised quasi-criminal situations with the promise of making a fast buck and having a good time.

New Zeland is Australia’s much-ignored twin. It ran off to become a sheep farmer and is unregarded by the rest of the family. Secretly, it is thankful for this.

America was the favored son, and it took advantage of this privilege for all it’s worth, becoming famous as a child prodigy. Having squandered much of that youthful potential, America has grown up into a drunken lout with a violent streak. It’s widely known to have recently knocked over several gas stations to pay for its drug habit, but knows it will never be arrested because of who its’ parents are, and its extensive gun collection. Has several ill-regarded and much ignored colonial offspring of its own, in the form of a half dozen protectorates acquired from numerous ill-advised imperialist relationships with neighboring developing nations, whom it treats shabbily, if it acknowledges the past relationship at all. Will either self-imolate in a spectacular orgy of drug-fueled violence, or recover after a reluctant international community stages an intervention and a court-mandated 12 step program that will most likely turn it into one of those insufferable Jesus freaks.

India became an emancipated minor and despite concerns, has done a lot of growing up recently, after it spent a few years running away to itself to explore its spiritual side. This has made it vulnerable to exploitation by America, but it knows when to keep it’s distance. Has a lot of big plans for the future and is working with a lot of creative, influential friends and relations to make its dreams come true. look for big things from India.

Hong Kong was the unplanned, late-life surprise baby that was unwanted. Though mostly ignored by its siblings, it can take care of itself, having grown up around China all these years.

At the next reunion, Great Britain will be politely conciliatory, ingratiating, and indulgent but will still fawn over America and mostly ignore everyone else. Still it will try and get a fiver out of Canada, and succeed.

In Defense of Escapism

During a recent discussion over at Charlie Stross’ blog about genre fiction’s relationship to the Big Idea story, there was a sub-discussion about escapism and the role it plays in science fiction and fantasy. Naturally, a lot of science fiction authors and fans are a bit defensive whenever the subject of escapism comes up. For a long time, genre literature was dismissed as nothing but escapist fantasies, avoiding the hard work of discussing the issues of the world we live in by running off to fight over magic jewelry with orcs or flying off in rocket ships to punch bug-eyed aliens in the face, imperialistically.

I’ve long been fascinated by the dismissive criticism of escapism. A lot of it has to do with literalism, which in some ways is the opposite of escapism. The literlist tendency to take metaphorical story space at face value is the native perspective in mainstream non-genre literature. When English professors contemplate having an affair with the perky young grad student, there’s no wiggle room for interpretation as to what that means. There may be an existential metaphor at play in the prose, but it’s used as a device for extrapolating the actual emotions under discussion, unlike in genre fiction, where the brain swapping

machine is very rarely meant to be taken as an actual piece of prospective technology, but rather used as a mechanism for exploring gender and identity roles in society.

Both are valid methods of telling a story, it’s just that genre fiction requires a secondary set of skills to decode those sometimes obtuse or esoteric symbolism at play. This can be a challenge for people who don’t often read genre fiction. Their decoder muscle may be atrophied or underdeveloped. And so they may mistake an escapist story or escapist element in a genre fiction as a literal wish fulfilment. The desire of the author and the fans of that story to be somewhere else, doing something untrue.

This of course is not the case. Escapism serves a very real and valid purpose and is a useful tool in the story teller’s craft.

As an example, see the story from last year about the Chinese government banning time travel  stories. They’re so afraid of loosing their grip on power, they’re trying to control people’s daydreams about a world where they never existed, or were stopped. That’s Science fiction come to life.

There’s a difference between dreaming up a better world as a way to calibrate your own desires and expectations, and forcing others to take your fantasy world, and the moral strictures that come from it, as serious policy. That’s dragging us to the other end of the spectrum: bleak nihilism (embrace, reality, it’s good for you!) on one hand and living in an untethered Lala land (clap harder, you sinner!) at the other.

Still, we have alot of elbow room in between. That’s the playground for Escapist literature, where we define our hopes and fears and build the memetic tools to conquer the later and make the former a reality (as as close to it as is humanely possible).

The many uses of escapism are apparent in genre fiction, but also in non-genre fiction as well.

Mad Men is all about escapism. The shape of our dreams and how they contrast with reality. The escapist element is almost meta in the case of Mad Men I mean, who doesn’t want to wear a slick suit and drive a 60s era Jag? But that’s just the hook. Once you’re in that world, you start to see it form the perspective of the various characters, which is where the real story takes place.

All the characters were born between the 1890s and 1940s, and we’re watching them go through the 60s, when all the social and technological change that had been brewing for a century came to a head. It was even obliquely pointed out in one episode, where an elderly receptionist died in the office. Burt Cooper, the oldest of the partners, eulogized her by saying she was an astronaut. She was born in a log cabin and died in a sky scraper, 30 stories in the air.

As the series has gone on it’s become clear that it’s about these characters who were raised in one world and now find themselves living in another one they couldn’t have imagined growing up and confounded daily by the differences between expectation and experience.
Mad Men is one of the most SFnal shows on television even though its fantastical elements are restricted to the occasional dream sequence or drug trip. But it addresses the very core concept of Speculative Fiction, especially of the New Wave variety (I’d swear Season 5 was written by JG Ballard if I didn’t know he was dead).

Coming back around to the topic that launched this discussion about Escapism, I think the reason why it doesn’t seem like SF has a purpose any more, is because all of our contemporary fiction has become Science Fictional. Even the straight realistic period dramas address themes that were until recently, the purview of genre fiction.

Now that all fiction is addressing large social, technological and existential dilimas through a conscious lens of “what if”, all that’s left is too choose your tropes and setitngs. You can set your drama in an ad agency in 60s Manhattan or on a space ship in the 24th century. But it’s going to address the same topics. Which of course brings us back around to defending escapism as a valid and even necesary element of story telling.

Escapist fiction is a dialogue with the culture we live in. It gives our dreams of a better world a shape. It forms the vocabulary of the worlds we wished we lived in, allowing us to contrast that with the world we do live in.

The Ambassador From Halloween Country Has Gone Home

Ray Bradbury is dead.

I don’t know when I first read one of his stories, but for as long as I can remember, he’s always been there, a figure in my mental landscape. Neil Gaiman says that Ray Bradbury invented Halloween (and who am I too argue with Neil?):

There are authors I remember for their stories, other authors I remember for their people.  Bradbury is the only author I remember who sticks in my heart for his times of year and for his places. He called a book of short stories The October Country.  It’s the perfect Bradbury title. It gives us a time (and not just any time, but the month that contains Hallowe’en, when leaves change colour from green to flame and gold and brown, when the twigs tap on windows and things lurk in the cellars) and it makes it a country. You can go there. It’s waiting.

I never met Ray Bradbury, and for that I will always be full of regret. I never got the  chance to thank him for teaching me how to dream, inspiring me to become a writer, and making the world more beautiful, more magical just by being in it. He built new worlds out of words and dreams and fears and longings for that which never could be, but makes the world a better place for wanting it just the same.

All I can do now to thank him is to write my own stories. I hope that will be enough.

Lost in the Mushroom Forest

This week, Boing Boing is running a series called Mind Blowing Movies, all about the weird and fun films they saw while growing up, which warped their wee little minds. I thought I’d play along, describing my encounter with… The Mushroom People!

When I was young, I saw this strange Japanese film on TV.

This was back in the days before 24 hour cable and streaming movies, when broadcast TV was run by local affiliates who had to fill large blocks of airtime as cheaply as possible. They did this by running blocks of  old sci-fi and horror movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It shows just how much has changed, as these days there is no way the Networks would ever let the local Affiliates waste six hours of add space on reruns of Buck Rogers serials, Roger Corman horror flicks from the 60s, or movies that didn’t even get top billing at second run drive-ins. But these were different times, man.

But unlike the other Saturday Afternoon fair, all I remembered for years about this movie was a haunting unreality, a sense of dread as these characters ran around, slowly turning into Mushroom People. Luckily, my Google Fu is strong, and a few years ago I was able to track down the movie and discovered it was called Matango, or as I knew it so long ago, Attack of the Mushroom People.

The film was made in 1963 by Toho, the same studio that made Godzilla. In fact the director, Ishiro Honda, made his name directing many Kaiju, most notably, several of the subsequent Godzilla films. But Matango is something altogether different. The Wikipedia entry mentions the odd parallels between Matango and Gilliagan’s Island, with the seven castaways representing the seven deadly sins. Which is intriguing, though in tone and ambiance, the film is much more in the vein of Lost, but with mushrooms.

The sense of dread and something intangibly odd is present from the beginning, and at several points, could run off into a typical monster movie direction (going into the haunted house, answering the evil telephone and stopping mid escape to have sex, so the bloodthirsty maniac can catch up), but instead, this film subtly subverts all of those tropes. Though, I guess subverting them is the wrong idea, as the movie predates most horror films (and thus most horror film cliches) and so isn’t consciously subverting any of them. But we’ve come to expect lazy writing wearing it’s metaphors inside out in an attempt to appear post-modern or Ironic with a capitol I, and so we often expect there to be certain monster movie cause and effect at play. Matango instead lets the character’s drive the story to the inevitable conclusion, skirting into the monster movie world, but staying close to the blurry edges so that it still overlaps the naturalistic world. This way, we manage to get most of the way through the film before the men in rubber suits show up. We see their silhouettes and brief glimpses of them but just enough to make the full out Mushroom mayhem at the end seem plausible rather than contrived. In this sense, it has a nice Lovecraftian turn to it, slowly pushing us int the fantasy world one twist at a time, so that when we realize we’re in a monster movie, it’s too late and we have had some moments of genuine suspense.

What is most striking though is the bleak tone. The characters overtly critique Japanese society and civilization as a whole, ultimately deciding that maybe we’d all be better off in the jungle eating mushrooms instead of living in the soporific splendor of Tokyo (or New York, or Los Angelas or wherever). This sort of nihilistic edge is hard to find in any film, let alone one made in 1963.

These half remembered images of lugubrious mushroom people and the beshroomed forest in which they lived eventually found their way in to my novel, The Machine of the World, proving that the best thing a parent can ever do is let their children watch, unattended, whatever weird old movies they can get their hands on. It’s the only way to be sure they’ll grow up to write science fiction novels and entertain strange notions. otherwise, they might want o be a doctor or lawyer or something tedious and useful.