Monday, January 02, 2023

2022 Year in Review - part 2

 Lists like this are highly subjective, and I cannot pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist (to mix a metaphor or two). Even more so when it comes to a list of the best of TV and film because, frankly, I have seen too little of both to claim to have a broad perspective.

So, here goes, first of all, with TV.

First, the honourable mentions. BBC's This is Going to Hurt was an almost too painfully honest comedy-drama about the life of a junior doctor. This is mainly because it is based on the diaries of a former doctor, Adam Kay. Having spoken to others I know in the profession, the grim honesty is not a great exaggeration of the lived experiences of many working in the NHS today - if anything, it downplays the horrors and sanitises the dark humour. Not an easy watch, but brilliantly done.

I should also give a shout-out to the hilarious Derry Girls, arguably the funniest sitcom in decades, and yet one set against the background of the troubles in Northern Ireland in the nineties. Teen angst, sectarian politics and Ulster humour. The final season, which came out in 2022, is arguably its best - which is set against an already very high bar.

An unexpected delight was Wednesday, Netflix's updating of the Addams Family, focusing on the family's darkly deadpan daughter, Wednesday Addams, and her complex educational problems. It has an opening scene with a school locker, Pugsley Addams, a water polo team, a swimming pool, and some piranha fish that will either put you off or have you signing up to see the rest of the season on the spot. There are some great one-liners delivered with deadpan comedy timing by Jenna Ortega, but the plot is flimsy and forgettable. Nevertheless, there are some fun digressions and cameos that make this an instant classic. Watch out for the school disco in episode four in particular. And how they manage to give so much character to Thing, who is literally just a disembodied hand, is beyond me. Great fun, but don't look for anything profound.

Finally (but not least) is The Expanse season 6. To say it was the perfect finale for what has been the best space opera ever on TV (I am looking at you, Star Trek and Babylon 5) would not be hype. It was a slow burner of a season that gave all the characters room to breathe, so when the action came, it came with a gut punch. Sad to think the actual finale won't get made, as there are still three more novels and a whole new set of issues to confront. But having dealt with colonialism, racism, terrorism, environmental catastrophe and post-truth gaslighting, maybe the final three books' focus on imperialism and its resistance were too much for the producers.

But the three that really grabbed me this year were those that stepped out of the everyday horrors of life and into the darker worlds surrounding our everyday experiences.

I have to group the first two because they are cut from very similar cloth.

Midnight Mass

Set on a small fishing island off the US Atlantic Coast, this is a story about faith and its abuses. Starting with a fatal car crash caused by the drunk driving of one of the island's prodigal sons, the story picks up three years later on his release from gaol and his reluctant return to the bosom of his deeply catholic family on the island. The Catholic Church is the fading hub of the fading island community. A handful of the faithful attend daily mass, but with the island's priest way on pilgrimage, it is in a hiatus. Then a younger priest arrives, with news that the priest has been taken ill and won't return for a while. He will stand in for now.

We see the tensions and relationships between the different individuals on the island, not least between the Muslim sheriff and Bev Keane, who I can only describe as the church warden from hell (almost literally!).

Then miracles start to happen, and a religious revival begins. The charismatic Father Hill seems to be leading the small community towards some massive religious renewal movement, and God appears to be at work. But is all as it seems?

I won't say more, but stick with it - episodes one and two are slow builds, it takes till episode three for the story to really get going, and then it goes bonkers! 

The standout scenes are those between Father Hill and the returned prodigal, Riley Flynn, as they hold the mandatory AA meetings that Flynn must attend as a condition of his parole. Hill challenges Flynn to look beyond his disillusionment with the world and his loss of faith to see that God is doing something amazing. Flynn challenges the easy assumption that God does good things through bad situations. These are authentic, faithful explorations of faith, doubt, grace, and despair. 

The conclusion suggests that all religion is prone to evil and corruption, with Bev Keane leading the evil and Father Hill realising too late that he has unleashed something that is very definitely not of God. It suggests that a rather pantheistic, monistic understanding of our place in the universe is better than a theistic (or stark atheistic) one. I find it hard to argue with the first point - religion can very easily be exploited for evil ends, and the faithful can be turned to evil by charismatic leaders all too often. The second conclusion is more problematic to my mind,

Midnight Mass is an fascinating exploration of deep themes with complex characters. The first three episodes have a growing sense of unease, which is helped by some excellent, eerie scoring. As things become more and more full throated horror, the tension never lets up. Not one for the faint-hearted, though.

His Dark Materials Season 3

Picking up where season 2 ended, Will is hunting Lyra across multiple universes while her wicked mother, Marissa Coulter, hides her in a drugged sleep. Lyra dreams of her dead friend Roger and believes he is calling her from the land of the dead.

If you have never entered Philip Pullman's universe of steampunk fantasy, worlds where the human soul exists as a physical animal companion called a daemon and where a knife can cut between different universes, including our own, then here is a quick primer. It's wide, wonderful, profoundly ant-organised religion, and pro a pantheistic, monistic idea of our place in the universe. Hang on that sounds familiar!?

All the baddies are priests or agents of the Magisterium (in other words, the Roman Catholic Church) who serve The Authority (God, only not actually God, but the first Angel who conned the others into believing he was the Creator). Witches, armoured bears, and scientists like Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, who have no truck with religious nonsense, all fight on the side of the good. 

In season three, Lyra visits the land of the dead (a kind of concentration camp for ghosts) and sets the ghosts free to become one with the universe. The priests create a bomb to kill her because she is the New Eve, destined to cause a second fall. However, this fall is no more than her kissing her bestie, Will and falling in love. Apparently, that saves all of Creation.

Yes, crazy, but emotionally engaging, rip-roaring action, and some fantastic design and characterisation, not least from Dafne Keene, who totally holds the screen as Lyra in every scene she's in. Also excellent is Ruth Wilson as Lyra's evil mother, Marissa Coulter - former agent of the Magisterium but now fighting on the side of the angels (well, the good ones) for reasons she does not entirely understand. I could have watched scenes between these two actors and done away with 90% of the rest of the plot and been happy! 

But at its heart, the enemy Pullman is trying to tear down a straw man. Religion is seen as life-denying, joy-sapping, and ultimately constrictive while losing faith means we can fall in love and live happy, creative lives. Hmmm. 

While faith may often be all of these things, they are not intrinsic to religion. Many sects of the Protestant and Catholic faith are precisely the sort of thing that Pullman takes a swing at, but the opposite is also true. Some of the most significant social engagement, joy, creativity, community life, and striving for justice and freedom are to be found in faith communities. Meanwhile, this sort of amorphous spirituality that both HDM and Midnight Mass seem to promote sounds attractive but ultimately lacks depth and demands on the believer.

Dramas like these two certainly initiate a conversation about faith, but neither has the final word to say.

The Sandman

The long-awaited screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman's ground-breaking graphic novel series of the
nineties finally dropped in August. And it was worth the wait. Beautifully filmed, well acted, and adapted faithfully (but not slavishly) from the graphic novels, much of it by Gaiman himself. It was a thing of beauty throughout.

Dealing with the big ideas - the nature of story, morality, death, and so forth - it also manages to be a lot of fun and occasionally even funny. Hang on for episode 6 - The Sound of Her Wings - it is a simple, beautiful, and thoughtful pause between the horrors of the first set of stories and the epic finale of the last four-parter. It is possibly my favourite single episode of TV this year.

I may not share all of Gaiman's ideas about life and death, but one thing he understands, and one thing of which he is a consummate master, is storytelling. The power of stories to change people, to shape our choices and values is very clear throughout his work. The Sandman, who is himself the master of dreams and stories, personifies this throughout this widely rich and imaginative series.

This is fantasy TV of the highest order.

I'll be looking at last year's cinema in my next blog.

Friday, December 30, 2022

2022 in review - part 1

This last year has been, at least on the global and national scale, something of a shitshow. An omnishambles. A permacrisis. It would be easy to dwell on the political incompetence, corruption, and out-and-out evil that has permeated the year. But I am instead going to cast my eye over the books, TV and films that have caught my mind, heart and imagination over the last twelve months.


Several books caught my mind this year. First, let me start with a couple novel series that have occupied a lot of my time - one contemporary, one dating back to the eighties.

The Expanse

The nine novels of the Expanse came to their conclusion in November 2021 with 
Leviathan Falls. Filmed as a first-rate TV series, the novels naturally follow a somewhat different trajectory. After finishing the last four novels over the course of the year, I could appreciate the value of the original material afresh. The characters have more room to breathe. The realities of the differing cultures of Mars, the Belt and Earth in the twenty-third century have more room to be explored. The realpolitik of a solar system on the brink of war has a subsequent heft and logic. 

The nine books fall into three trilogies (roughly), but only the first two have been turned into TV. The last trilogy, which dwarfs in scale and consequences the previous two, now looks unlikely to get the adaptation it deserves.

While it is far from original - the Expanse borrows heavily from nearly a century of American and British space opera, from the Golden Age to the New Wave and the modern reinvention of the genre - it uses the tropes and cliches of the genre to great effect. It also has structural similarities to George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels. Both use multiple narrative third-person viewpoints. Both tell a tale of complex politics with multiple powers and personalities striving to control a chaotic, factionalised world. They introduce an initially low-key outside threat that soon grows into something that becomes the centre of the narrative while never fully explained. Above all else, both do some impressive world-building that immerses you in a believable world with diverse cultures and languages.

But it is still an artisan's work compared to the other sequence I stumbled upon this year.

Hyperion Cantos

Taking its titles from two of Joh Keat's poems, Hyperion and the Fall of Hyperion, are something remarkable. The first novel is structured like the Canterbury Tales but also draws on the poetry of Keats, Christian and Jewish theology and Scripture, the works of Shusako Endo (especially Silence), hard-boiled detective fiction, and the wildest edges of modern space opera, to create something unique. It is a narrative about the emergence of sentient AI (and what comes beyond that), deity, and the purpose of humanity, suffering, life, and death. At times, I found the individual stories of the core protagonists profoundly moving and almost too painful to finish. 

All this and a cracking good yarn to boot!

I felt the second novel finished perfectly. The two sequels (Endymion and The Rise of Endymion - also from Keats) seemed unnecessary and are, by all accounts, inferior works. So I have not (yet) ventured to read them. 

While The Expanse sequence is a great, rip-roaring adventure, Hyperion Cantos are something more complex and need a slower read and re-read.

Faith, Hope and Carnage

I knew I had finally given in to my inner grumpy old white man when I began to immerse myself in the music of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and, most recently, Nick Cave. They all have something that speaks to my lived experience as a white man entering his seventh decade and a spirituality born of hard lives, love, losses, hope, and pain.

However, Nick Cave, the human being rather than the artist and performance persona, was a revelation to me. In a series of recorded, transcribed interviews, he and journalist Seán O'Hagan, explore his songwriting process, his relationship to fame, and the highs and lows of being in a band (including stories of drinking and drug excesses and run-ins with the police). All somewhat familiar, standard rock journalism and storytelling.

But the book veers off quite early in unexpected directions. Not least, into Cave's growing Christian faith and how he and his wife have come to terms with the loss of his fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, in a tragic accident in 2015. His reflections on faith and grief are profound, raw, hopeful, and eloquent. 

This was probably the most moving book I have 'read' in years. Actually, I listened - the audiobook is Cave and O'Hagan reading, and their voices give the whole weight of Cave's self-disclosure some extra heft. His eloquence in writing and speaking the unwritable and unspeakable are pretty remarkable. And to see a man in his mid-sixties still growing, learning, creating, and working like a trojan to produce work of remarkable quality, is heartening and inspiring to me as I look at turning sixty in the next two or three years. His output is both prodigious and diverse, from his rock albums to film soundtracks, to novels, to films.

As Cave says at one point, 'life is too damned short not to be awed'. This is from a man at an age that, in the recent past, would have seen him retiring and stepping back from all this creative energy to look back on his long life. Here instead, is someone whose pain and loss have reshaped him into a more richly human, spiritually questing individual. Maybe that is a source of hope for anyone as they enter this third act of life.

How to Inhabit Time

This brings me to my favourite book of the year! In many ways, this book gives the theological and philosophical underpinnings of what Nick Cave was writing about in the previous book. James K A Smith has written several books in recent years that seem to have resonated in Christian and possibly secular circles. From exploring the liturgies of culture and how they shape our beliefs and lives. to unpacking the dense philosophy of Charles Taylor into an engaging book about faith in the secular world, Smith has tackled complex ideas with passion and insight.

I first got turned on to his writing by his previous book, On the Road with St Augustine, turning the great early medieval theologian and philosopher into a travelling companion on a Kerouacian pilgrimage across Europe and modern-day life. Along the way, they pick up other hitchhikers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Satre, seeing the journey from their perspectives but finding a more satisfying point of view in Augustine. It is a book I keep re-reading for its depth of insight.

How to Inhabit time may be his most intimate book yet, exploring the travails of family life and loss to illustrate how faith engages with our temporal and fleeting existence as human beings. You can already see how it links back to Faith, Hope and Carnage! 

How do we understand our past and anticipate our future while living firmly grounded in the present? How do we live in the moment while recognising the past as the 'compost' out of which we are growing? How do we remain grounded in the here and now while anticipating a future steeped in biblical eschatology? Well, he does not have all the answers, but Smith's engaging, passionate, culturally rich writing will take you on a journey to discover the answers for yourself. A journey that is probably worth taking with Augustine as a travelling companion.

It's another book to read and re-read.

In my next blogs, I'll look at some of the films and TV that have shaped my year.

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

The streets

One of the things that separates the New World from the Old is the layout of our cities. A New World City, like New York, Sydney, or Vancouver, has a linear, grid-like layout. Easy to navigate, nicely symmetrical, dull as ditchwater. Even if the surrounding landscape is chaotic, the New World city imposes on nature in a very rigid, linear manner.

Old World Cities, like Prague or London, are a bit more chaotic. The cityscape is stunning but organic, layer upon layer, with no apparent overriding pattern or plan. London, in particular, exemplifies this, with different aesthetics and eras overlapping one another within a few streets.

While the linear streets of the Americas and the Antipodes have a sense of masculine order imposed upon nature, the streets of my neighbourhood here in Northwest Kent are more organic and feminine, moving with rather than against local geography. They curve and curl and twist, following the contours of the hills that dominate the area. When I run, it is never in a straight line or on the flat. I have to follow curling streets that loop around or curl back on themselves, that climb steeply or fall away precipitately.

Running the streets of my immediate neighbourhood is always an adventure, an exploration. You can stumble upon a house built on the edge of a precipice, with a garden that falls or climbs madly from the back door or climbs around at weird, tortuous angles. Some houses abut the street at the first floor, others have front doors high above the footfall of mere mortals. Some would be a safe haven in heavy rain but a nightmare in snow. A few flood regularly. All allow impossibly epic views across the valley, catching dawn and sunset spectacularly.

And always, as a runner, you have to learn to run the hills as they curve and swoop. You learn to love the sudden steep inclines while craving the brief moment of the flat or the gentle downhill as your burning lungs and legs demand a brief respite. Never do you get bored. Never does the view fail to surprise or excite. The urban never felt so organic to me. Never felt so much like the woodlands about this tiny, hidden suburb of a London satellite town.

I grew to love these streets over two years of lockdowns during the Covid pandemic. They were my bolt hole, my source of escape and surprise. To discover that I lived in a place of such strange yet mundane majesty was a surprise. I had dismissed my dormitory town as a sleepy place, one of absence rather than presence, of boredom rather than surprise. Now I have come to love it as a place of constant fresh discovery, a challenge to heart and leg and lung as I pound the streets at sunrise and sunset.

Saturday, May 09, 2020


Probably one of the most unprecedented things about COVID-19 has been the unprecedented use of the word unprecedented in the wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic. Well, at least in my unprecedented experience!

The ever-helpful Merriam-Webster watch on trending words hasn’t clocked it yet, but that may be because there are plenty of other words tickling the fancy of Americans on the web. It may also be that it defines the word as ‘having no precedent’, which while being concise, is somewhat unhelpful.

Our own OED defines unprecedented as an adjective meaning ‘Never done or known before’. It also does not show the word in its trending searches, suggesting that the British too have no trouble knowing what the word means (maybe because the OED definition is a little more useful than Merriam-Webster’s?).

Words are not hard-boiled objects that hold an unchanging value or meaning. Sorry, all you English language purists out there, decimate does mean destroy as well as reduce by a tenth, and literally does now also act as an intensive form of figuratively. It’s just the way language is – words get co-opted to mean things for which the speaker has no other word to hand, and if that happens widely enough, words change meanings. It also explains (at least in part) why so many meanings seem to have more words than is strictly necessary. Think of how many synonyms there are for the word bad – give yourself half an hour and see how many you can come up with. Surely just one word would do?

Well, unprecedented (synonyms – unparalleled, extraordinary, record, first-time, exceptional, unmatched, etc.) is a word whose meaning is, perhaps unconsciously, drifting towards a more subjective nuance of the never known before part of the OED definition. Because the main way that these times are unprecedented is primarily in the experience to those who are writing. Very few of us (at least in the English-speaking West) have lived through a major epidemic, let alone a global pandemic before. Few of us have ever had to contend with being forced to self-isolate indoors for weeks, not even being able to see loved ones who are dying or attend funerals. In our, personal experience as human beings, this is unprecedented.

But you don’t have to go back far to find that our current circumstances are far from being without precedent. Even last year, the Democratic Republic of Congo was fighting a major Ebola epidemic that went largely unreported in the West. A few years earlier, an even more significant Ebola epidemic broke out in West Africa. Ebola is both highly transmissible and very deadly - far more so than COVID-19.

Much of Asia has dealt with novel coronavirus outbreaks such as MERS and SARS in the last two decades, and while not as transmissible as COVID-19, they are both far more deadly. Go back to the fifties and the UK was dealing with a major influenza epidemic, and of course to 1918/19 and the infamous (and misnamed and misremembered) Spanish Influenza, which killed more people in a few months than the First World War, and was spread globally because of the mass movement of fighting men and refugees.

Dig further back and there is a history of cholera epidemics across Europe and the Americas as our ancestors set about trading with and colonising parts of South Asia and Indochina where the bacterium Vibrio cholerae is endemic. Or further still to the outbreaks of bubonic plague and the still mysterious Black Death in the Middle Ages and Dark Ages. Take it back further to the Antonine and Cyprian Plagues that swept through the Roman Empire’s cities in the second and third centuries.

Epidemics have been with us since we built cities and decided to live cheek-by-jowl with our fellow human beings. Since we decided that we needed to travel the globe for trade, exploration and the novelty of seeing new places and people and conquering them for the heck of it. 

Urbanisation and travel have shaped epidemics and pandemics for thousands of years. As has politics – if you think the current debates about lockdown versus the economy are modern preoccupations, listen to this podcast.

The way we deal with epidemics has a long precedent as well. Quarantine (from the Italian quaranta giorni, rereferring to the forty-day exclusion on incoming ships to Venice during times of plague in the 14th century) has long been part of the way we deal with infectious diseases. During the Cyprian plagues people stayed in their homes or fled the cities to the countryside, leaving the poor and wretched to die with no care or help (apart from the early church who did stay and risked their own lives to care for the vulnerable and the sick). Nothing unprecedented here either.

Nevertheless, for most of us, COVID-19 is a crisis the like of which we have never experienced. For us, it is unprecedented. So, the subjective definition of the word is becoming normative, rather than the more objective nuance. It is a small shift in meaning, but also a profound one.

It shows why studying language and history is so importnat. It puts our apparently unprecedented experience into a bigger and wider context, shows us that such things have happened before, and indeed happen all the time, and that this too shall pass. Not without cost or pain. Not without inconvenience and disruption. But it will pass, and we will, for the most part, survive. Coming through pandemics is far from being without precedent.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Ad Astra

Tying itself firmly to the coattails of recent, 'hard' science fiction films such as Gravity, Interstellar, and Moon, Ad Astra is very much an attempt to do a Heart of Darkness for the space age in much the same way that Apocalypse Now did for the Vietnam War.

Visually sumptuous, well-acted, with an evocative Max Richter score, and in writer/director James Gray a creator who has an interesting body of work behind him. On paper at least, it certainly has all the right credentials

Hopes were high for this film before its release, and some critics have praised it highly. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent on a mission across the solar system to contact and stop his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) from an enterprise that could threaten all life on earth. We are also promised that what he discovers along the way could have profound implications for humanity and our understanding of our place in the universe.

We explore McBride's inner turmoil over his long-absent father through a series of inner monologues, while externally he shows little or no emotion or human connection. It's because he's never really known his father, you see. His father, we are repeatedly told by other characters, is a hero of space exploration, someone who went further into space than anyone else in order to uncover the truth of whether there is any other intelligent life out there. McBride only knows him as an absent figure for most of his childhood and his whole adult life.

A series of action-packed set pieces break up these introspective musings. They make little sense in themselves; an attempted hi-jacking on lunar buggies; an abandoned space station with rage-filled, killer test-subjects; a lethal zero-g fistfight. Each gives McBride an excuse to muse on the fragility of human existence, the pointlessness of our endless wars and conflicts and the bitterness of the unintended consequences to well-intentioned but misguided choices.

But its baggy, clumsy plotting could have been forgivable if there was a denouement that actually brought everything together or, at the very least, left us with a sense of awe and mystery. As best I can I will avoid too many spoilers, but it is hard to critique the film without hinting at the finale - so skip to the last three paragraphs if you would rather not know anything about how the film finishes.

Firstly, it is a pretty saccharine and bland ending. When father and son finally confront one another at the very edge of our planetary system, there are two major revelations - about his father and about what his father has found. They should fall like hammer blows, but they don't. The first is meant to change how McBride sees himself, the second how humanity understands its place in the universe. But they are skipped over so quickly that there is little impact at all.

Secondly, because we never see much of McBride's childhood or his marriage, we are only given vague visual cues and ponderous voice-overs to tell us he finds it hard to form emotional attachments or care for others. Consequently, we end up not really caring about him. More showing, less telling would have fleshed McBride out more and given us some emotional investment in him. Giving the criminally under-used Liv Tyler, as his long-suffering other-half, some actual dialogue and character development would also have given McBride's character arc far more emotional heft and depth.

Thirdly, Arthur C Clarke said that there were two answers to the question of whether we are alone in the universe. Either there is intelligent life out there, or there is none. Both answers are profoundly terrifying and have huge existential ramifications for the human race. While the question remains open, like Schrodinger's cat in its unopened box, we live with both options and can explore the ideas that they may unleash. The film opens the box, finds the cat dead and then shrugs its shoulders. McBride resolves his daddy issues with a similar shrug, resolves to be more connected with people in future (in another voice-over) and goes back to a presumably happier life with his long-suffering wife. And that's it! So much for uncovering the profound mysteries of the universe!

One of the other incidental issues touched upon in the film is religion. The crew with whom McBride travels to Mars, pray to St Christopher as they launch, commit the body of a departed comrade to God's keeping with a Christian prayer and, in an old recorded message, McBride's father talks of the profound sense of God's presence with him as he heads further out into the void. The denouement kind of skips over this, but the implication is that his discoveries have stripped McBride's father of hope and faith. This was another wasted opportunity that the film could have explored.

In a vast, beautiful but apparently lifeless universe, who are we, and what is our world? It is a question we are increasingly having to confront as we discover more and more about the scale and nature of our cosmos.

As a Christian, I do not see the universe as devoid of meaning. On the contrary, it is filled with divine meaning, whether or not there is any other intelligent life out there. Why the universe is so unimaginably vast is a mystery. Why God has created all of this to lavish his love on one species on one, tiny world in all this vastness is a source of wonder. The alternative, that we are utterly alone in the vastness of a meaningless void is truly soul shrivelling.

My faith in Christ, who left the divine realm to take up frail humanity and to walk a path of self-sacrifice to the cross for our sake, is nonsense to many, but for those of us who believe, it takes that vast, existential ache as we look out into the expanse of the cosmos and says 'I am known, I am loved and my existence has meaning'.

Our hope is not, as the film's opening and title suggest, in the stars. It is in the one who made them.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

This is How You Lose the Time War

This summer’s reading list has included fascinating books on theology, posthumanism and the latest short story collection from the wonderful Ted Chiang.

However, this year’s revelation was a novella by the science fiction and fantasy authors/poets Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. The title, This is how you lose the Time War, could have been lifted from an episode of the Russel T Davies era of Doctor Who, although structurally and thematically it owes a very heavy debt to the Culture novels of Ian M Banks.

It starts with the very Banksian scene of a covert operative, equipped with the most sophisticated in-body weaponry, viewing her handiwork in destroying single-handedly (she thinks) the armies of two interstellar empires. This is to re-set the course of future history in a direction her side sees as more favourable to their plans. In this scene of carnage, she finds an enigmatic paper note that starts ‘burn before reading’. So begins a correspondence over time and space with her opposite number, an agent of the enemy in a vast, era and galaxy-spanning time war.

Following each protagonist as they seek to shape the evolution of humanity towards their own faction’s desired outcome, the narrative shows them regularly thwarting one another. At the site of each defeat, they leave encoded messages for one another. Initially taunting, then admiring, then almost comradely before becoming full-blown love letters, these witty, passionate epistles form the backbone of the narrative. The focus of the novella is less on the time war itself, its reasons and strategies, but more on the growing relationship that the letters reveal between these two protagonists.

Full of clever wordplay, the prose sometimes becomes almost purple (which is apt, given the chosen names of the two central characters). Overall, the use of language is wonderful. Punning, poetic, emotional and droll, the writers create whole worlds and epochs in each, brief chapter, only to leave them behind as the narrative and the unfolding correspondence go forward. That the two protagonists never properly meet (although they do espy one another at a distance on a couple of occasions) makes the correspondence they share all the more powerful and revealing.

But what are the consequences? Are the protagonists going to keep their superiors in the dark for long about their emerging intimacy? Is one or other of them trying to turn the other to their side by professing love falsely? And who or what is the ‘Seeker’ who dogs their footsteps?

The narrative taunts, occasionally misdirects, and ultimately finishes on a cliff-hanger. Is it going to lead to a sequel? I expect that many will want to know how the story of the lovers who never meet pans out, but I think the power of the narrative is that it does not wrap up its threads in neat endings and leave the reader wanting more. I certainly would love to read more from both these authors.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The body and Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon is the huge big budget science fiction offering from Netflix. While their recent output in films has been decidedly dodgy (Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox to name but two that audiences and critics alike have panned), Altered Carbon has had a more mixed response. 

Its central premise is that, out of salvaged ancient alien technology, humans have discovered a way to download and record human consciousness in small, hard drive-like devices called stacks that sit at the top of the spinal column. At death, this stack can be reinserted into a new body. If you are poor and die young or as a result of crime, the state will spin you up into any available body (usually those of criminals whose stacks have been removed and put on ice indefinitely). Thus, in an early scene, we see the parents of a seven-year-old girl who died in an accident brought back in the body of a middle-aged woman. Race and gender become irrelevant – an Asian man comes back in a Caucasian body; an Afro-American woman comes back in a white male body.
In one amusing scene, a cop of Mexcian descent spins up her late Grandmother into the body of a massive, tattooed and bearded drug dealer. Watching this massive man trapesing around a market choosing the choicest ingredients for the family feast on Día de los Muertos was initially amusing, then strangely poignant and uncomfortable, as this ancient festival of remembrance became subverted by new technology,

Of course, the rich can afford to have multiple cloned bodies in storage to give them back their own bodies after death. They can also regularly back-up their stacks, ensuring that even if the stack is destroyed, they can still be brought back. When a rich man is murdered and his stack destroyed just before his regular backup, it means his last 48 hours were lost and the identity of his murderer remains a mystery. This becomes the centre of the story.

Now, there is a lot to say about this series, including its huge debt to Blade Runner in visual style, and indeed to numerous other films. Actually, even the central conceit is far from original, although seldom seen in cinema and TV. Greg Bear introduced the idea of implants that could house a human consciousness and be re-housed in a new body in Eon back in 1985. Other authors, including Ian M Banks, Ken McLeod and Peter F Hamilton have repeatedly used the idea in their science fiction.

It is indeed a fascinating idea – not least because of its underlying assumptions. At its core is the idea that the human self is just software, the body merely the replaceable hardware on which it runs. Self is memory, personality traits merely programmes. The real you is just data, and data can be copied, uploaded, downloaded and stored. 

The roots of this idea are Neoplatonic – the idea that the real self is a spiritual, immaterial entity, the material body merely an imperfect echo. The Gnostics took the idea one step further, arguing the spiritual self was real and good, the material self a sinful illusion – even positing two gods over each realm – the good creator of the spiritual, the evil creator of the material.

Eastern religions also resonate with this idea with the doctrine of reincarnation – the spirit reborn time and time again into a new body. And for many, the Christian idea of life after death is seen as a disembodied existence in God’s presence. That, however, is a travesty of the actual biblical teaching.

Science Fiction loves this idea because it means in the godless universe that most of the genre’s authors inhabit, we have the promise of life after death. Posthumansists sees this as technologically achievable within the next century at the most.

It is a secular dream, but it is a fantasy.

The actual biblical understanding is quite at odds with all of this. The body and the spirit are integral. The word for soul in Hebrew and Greek means simply the person, the self, and in Hebrew is used of the body as well as the mind. The physical and spiritual are closely linked, so much so that life after death is always seen as an embodied existence – there is no positive depiction of a disembodied afterlife in either Old or New Testaments.

We are fully embodied in our self. Our memories are not just seated in our brains – they are also seated in our muscles and viscera. Our hearts and guts contain brain cells, and messages from the heart and bowels affect the brain as much as vice versa. Take us away from our bodies, we lose our self, our soul. We are not data, not software that can run in any body. We are an integrated whole. We are also constantly changing, our minds and our bodies are not the same from one moment to the next, and their changes are not separate, but intimately interlinked. Self is not static, it is in constant flux.

Altered Carbon is an interesting and fun bit of slightly OTT cyberpunk with some interesting ideas that it never fully explores, not least of which is how alienated a person put into a new body that is not their own would be. Indeed, would they even be the same person?

2022 Year in Review - part 2

 Lists like this are highly subjective, and I cannot pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist (to mix a metaphor or two). Eve...