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My Shameful Fictional History

Well now, this is going to be tricky. Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon is a shameless tribute to all the cold war paranoia, post-apocalyptic fiction of my youth. Over on the Rebellion blog I recently wrote about the music of the era and how fears of a Third World War permeated even the poppiest of pop songs. (Nuclear war flavoured music wasn’t just for the angst ridden goth or metalhead). So what’s so shameful about the fiction of the era? Well let’s just say some of it was a bit… dodgy and you can make up your own mind as to why.

So first up:

 

The Survivalist, by Jerry Ahern, tells the story of CIA weapons expert and I-told-you-so-survivalist John Rourke. Rourke is a man who still finds himself searching post apocalyptic America for his wife and kids despite having made painstaking preparations for the inevitable nuclear war. (Which is just poor planning if you ask me: “Honey, if WW3 breaks out can you and the kids meet me at the survival retreat?” Job done.) During his quest for his family he befriends mild-mannered, everyman Paul Rubinstein (and teaches him to become a prolific killer), there are romantic complications with the deadly KGB major, Natalie Tiemerovna, and he finds himself battling bikers, mutants, cannibals, and of course the invading Russian army. (Why the Russian army would want a radiation scarred wasteland of bikers, mutants, cannibals and well armed recalcitrant survivalists, however, is beyond me.)

Now I loved these books as a kid, thankfully I grew out of them pretty quickly. I suspect one of the reasons I liked them was that, despite their pulpiness, the characters weren’t nearly as cardboard as they could have been. There were strong female characters, particularly John’s wife, Sarah, and later his daughter Annie. There were also positive Jewish and African-American supporting characters. The Russian/Soviet characters could very easily have descended into grotesque caricatures, and the villain of the piece, Vladimir Karamatsov, is evil with a capital E. There were, however, sympathetic Russian characters like the aforementioned Natalia, and her uncle, General Ishmael Varakov. There was an understanding that the Russians/Soviets were people, rather than the objectified subhuman monsters they are depicted as being in a lot of other books in the Survivalist Fiction sub-sub-genre. (And if you want to see an example of this, then the Doomsday Warrior is breath-taking in its racism)

So where do we go next? Well how about a film were the stars of the burgeoning Brat Pack meet libertarian politics, a film that, upon it’s release, was considered the most violent film ever by the Guinness Book of Records, a film so notorious that the USSR actually complained about it. I am of course talking about:

 

 

I love John Milius, there I’ve said it. I couldn’t care less about his politics. He’s responsible for the TV series Rome, he wrote Apocalypse Now, he directed the surf film Big Wednesday, and he gave a certain Austrian muscle man his first big screen break in Conan the Barbarian. (Ever wonder why people my age like Conan? It’s because we didn’t grow up with the likes of LOTR. Conan was the only good fantasy film around.) Red Dawn is the story of a group of plucky American teens, members of the Wolverines high school football team. They form a resistance unit when their small Colorado town is, somewhat inexplicably, invaded by the Russians, and their Cuban and Nicaraguan allies. As you can imagine all sorts of heroic hijinks ensue, but despite the jingoism (even Milius felt it was too jingoist) it has something of a zero-sum-game ending. To my mind Red Dawn is one of most iconic of eighties movies. It perfectly sums up the ridiculousness of the propaganda of that particular era of the Cold War, the Reagan years. Ironically Milius has since stated that the Communists in the film are actually supposed to represent centralised government.

Gun nut, surfer, libertarian, maverick film maker, John Milius is a fascinating character. I would very much recommend the documentary Milius directed by the same Zak Knutson who gave a donkey a blowjob in Clerks II.

It should go without say that you should ignore the remake (the film that I suspect Chris Hemsworth wishes didn’t exist). It’s difficult to imagine anything dumber than North Korea invading America.

And on to tabletop roleplaying games… Games Designer’s Workshop was a war and role-playing game company started in 1973. GDW published simulationist-style games, the most famous being Traveller, which, if it wasn’t the first science fiction RPG, then it was certainly the most influential. Their naval warfare miniatures game, Harpoon, was influential in the writing of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. GDW released Twilight 2000 in 1984. The players were members of various military units who had banded together to survive and return home in the aftermath of a ‘limited’ nuclear war, which had resulted the break down of society. Depicting a Broken-Backed War (as does Special Purposes), Twilight 2000 had ‘realistic’ rules for everything from PTSD to dysentery, bubonic plague to radiation poisoning. (Fun huh!?) Upon its release, however, it was subject to criticism for it’s perceived flag waving, pro-West/anti-Russian stance. Now I’m actually going to defend Twilight 2000 here. It is my honest belief that the point of the game was an accurate (if playable) depiction of a possible WW3 scenario. I never really picked up on the politics. It had much more in common with the likes of Band of Brothers, Platoon, Saving of Private Ryan etc., than Rambo, Commando or even Red Dawn. The drama came down to playing characters in a very difficult situation trying to survive, rather than ideological battles. (Though for an example of a much more jingoistic role-playing game see The Price of Freedom, which I never played.)

Moving away from the troubling nature of 80’s pulp fiction and into the much more ideologically sound world of the flesh eating undead, I give you my favourite zombie film George A. Romero’s follow up to Night of the Living Dead: 1978’s Dawn of the Dead:

A number of the reviews of Special Purposes have pointed out how tired the zombie sub-genre has become (whilst going on to make it clear that First Strike Weapon rises above the ennui currently associated with the walking corpse oeuvre). I wonder if this has to do with fear. Zombies used to scare the living shit out of me (children and mirrors still do). Now, however, zombies are so commonplace in pop-culture that they’ve become familiar. It’s what I call the plushCthulhu effect. Actual contemplation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, it’s alien terrors and the vast horror of the cold, unfeeling cosmos itself, is actually pretty grim. If, however, we condense that all down to a small cuddly toy, then we no-longer have to contemplate the meaninglessness of our existence in the face of a hostile and uncaring universe. With all the parodies and zombie rom-coms we’ve done the same thing with undead hordes. (This is why we must burn plush Cenobites on sight.)

Mini-C says: “FEAR ME!”

Dawn of the Dead tells the story of a group of disparate survivors of the IZA[1] who take refuge in a shopping mall. Despite special effects that might not stand up to today’s exacting standards, despite it’s dated look and arguably hokey acting, Dawn of the Dead comes from a time when zombies were still frightening. This was all the more so because they held a mirror up to our consumer society. They frightened us because they were the mob that, through our fantasies of social alienation, we suspect will eventually turn on us, and that’s good horror.

28 Days Later isn’t my favourite horror film (that’s The Thing if you’re interested) but for my money it is the most effective. It has just the right mix of visceral unpleasantness, jump scares, and most important of all: tension. During the early scenes of Cillian Murphy wandering around a deserted London (to the discordant sound of East Hastings by the superb Godspeed You! Black Emperor) I found myself praying for something horrible to happen, just to break said tension. To my mind 28 Days Later is an extension of the works of the Splatterpunks of the 80s and 90s, in the truest sense of the movement: that of unflinching horror that reflected “the moral chaos of our times”[2] rather than how it was depicted by its detractors, as gore for the sake of gore. (Zombies are inexorably tied to the Splatterpunk sub-genre.)

If nothing else then Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon has this in common with Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later and all good zombie stories. The zombies aren’t the enemy. The zombies are more like a destructive force of nature, something to be endured, survived. The real malign intent, the real evil in these stories comes from us, humans. Perhaps that’s the irony of the pulp survivalist fiction of the eighties, most of which involved heroic gun-toting, white guys fighting the cruel oppression of the communists in the radioactive ruins: once the word is a destroyed, smoking mess wouldn’t that be the moment to reflect that perhaps conflict has already gone too far?

Author’s own (somewhat dusty) shoebox of post apocalyptic pulp fictional shame.

Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon can be found on Amazon UK in paperback and Ebook, Amazon US in paperback and Ebook, Barnes & Noble, Google, iBooks, Kobo and the Rebellion Store.

[1] Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse.

[2] Rob Latham, “The Urban Horror”, in S. T. Joshi, ed., Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: an Encyclopedia of our Worst Nightmares (Greenwood, 2007), (p. 591-618)

The C Word

No not that C-Word, you made it dirty in your own head. I’m talking about the most denigrated of sub-genres. That 80’s flash in the pan. That triumph of style over substance. That word you must never use when trying to sell your shiny new SF novel. That genre movement that was over before it started. That backlash conducted with more ruthless efficiency than the British music press savaging the last big Indie band. I am, of course, talking about (cue sinister electronic music): Cyberpunk.

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Influenced by the likes of Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, JG Ballard and Harlan Ellison (if you haven’t already, then go and read Deathbird Stories, now!) Cyberpunk burst out of the shattered rib cage of new-age SF like an angry infant alien… Okay it didn’t happen quite that way: some people wrote some stories, Bruce Bethke coined the phrase, which Gardner Dozois popularised. Then Blade Runner was released. Then William Gibson wrote Neuromancer. Then marketing people cottoned onto to it, and then an arguably disparate group of writers got lumped together. Then the imitators started. Then the old guard became frightened. Then the backlash kicked in, and Cyberpunk became a dirty word.

But between birth and so-called death, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams, Rudy Rucker, Pat Cadigan and friends took us to dark near futures of virtual reality Robin Hoods, fighting monolithic corporations in a pseudo-free market feudalism. They walked us across bleak urban landscapes that were looked down on from orbit by humanity’s elite.   The new life forms weren’t aliens. They were Artificial Intelligences born in digital wombs. The heroes were criminals who did a lot of drugs and the villains all had good jobs. They fused flesh with metal and plastic, and dragged Post and Transhumanism down into the muck with the rest of us. They may not have destroyed the Utopian ideals of 1950’s SF but they certainly suggested that it needed a bit of a rethink. They even, briefly, reclaimed the ninja from hokey nonsense.

 

 

Whilst the critics where screaming Cyberpunk is dead, the sub-genre was influencing style, design, art, advertising, technology, film, television, music, comics, gaming, even lifestyle and arguably criminality. Not to mention many other writers who daren’t mention the C-word.

Blade Runner’s a bit of a chicken and egg story with Cyberpunk but the influences of the sub-genre can be seen with films like Aliens, both Tron films, the Matrix trilogy, the first two Terminator films, Hardware and more recently Elysium. It can be seen in Anime like Akira, and the haunting Ghost in the Shell, and in other animation like the excellent, if painful to watch, Renaissance. Personally I think its influence can also be seen in non-genre films like Michael Mann’s Blackhat.

Wild Palms, Dark Angel and Dollhouse are the most blatantly Cyberpunk television series but its influences can be felt in the X-Files (William Gibson co-wrote two episodes of the show, Kill Switch and First Person Shooter), Fringe (because if it’s good enough for the X-Files…) and numerous other genre and non-genre shows. More recently Cyberpunks’s presence has been felt in the excellent Expanse TV series, adapted from the books of the same name, and of course Mr Robot.

 

Cyberpunk without the SF?

The sub genre has inspired numerous role-playing games, including of course R.Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020, which dominated role-playing in the late 80’s, and FASA’s Shadowrun.  The latter successfully mixing elements of high fantasy with the sub genre. It also influenced White Wolf’s World of Darkness games, particularly their Mage line.

It’s not as silly as it sounds! Well okay it is, but it’s still awesome.

The Industrial and Techno music of the 80’s and 90’s provided the soundtrack for Cyberpunk, particularly bands like the Ministry (anything up to and including the Psalm 69 album) and their spin off band the Revolting Cocks, Front 242, Front Line Assembly (and other bands with Front in their name?), the Future Sound of London (particularly the album Dead Cities), Nine Inch Nails (anything before the Fragile album).

(I should point out that the above is far from an exhaustive list, I didn’t even mention computer games, but that ‘s what Wikipedia’s for.)

Cyberpunk also influenced other subgenres:

Steampunk is Cyberpunk’s less challenging, homely, buck-toothed, red-haired, country cousin who whispers comfort lies about Empire whilst charging into battle screaming: “Jolly Hockey Sticks!” (This description will probably be responsible for me being chased down the cobbled streets of our nation’s capital and given a thorough kicking by Dickensian hoodlums wearing brass goggle and steam powered top hats.)

Splatterpunk is a more worrying and less comforting, red painted, relation. The sort of relative that we never talk about, lock in the basement and beat with staves so they’ll keep quiet when we have guests over. (Incidentally I’ve heard tell but never managed to track down literary Cowpunk, if anyone can suggest titles/writers worth reading in this western subgenre I’d greatly appreciate it.) Of course there is an argument sometimes people just put the word punk on the end of something to make it sound cooler. Erotic Gingerpunk for Rupert Grint fan fiction for example.

In fact I struggle to think of another movement in genre fiction that has had such a strong influence on culture. Space Opera and High Fantasy may be given a lot of lip service in terms of pop cultural references thanks to Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter but their effects on style, design, clothing, lifestyle and music are at best jokey, and at worst a little worrying. (Cybergoths look cooler than cosplaying Klingons, Storm Troopers, and Daleks, I’m sorry but they just do.)

And what of the imitators? Well like all cheap carbon copies nobody ever heard of them again. After all do you know who Neal Stephenson, Richard Morgan or Lauren Beukes are? (I should point out that calling the above three authors cheap carbon copies, or indeed imitators, is meant ironically to prove the influence of Cyberpunk, not to denigrate their excellent work, I’m a fan of all three.) But Stephenson, Morgan and Beukes are post-cyberpunk! I hear you cry. Sure, I mean there’s little discernable difference between what they’re doing and what the originators of the Cyberpunk sub-genre were doing, but the narrative is that cyberpunk is dead, so hey-ho.

 

Okay, even in the eighties I had my doubts about this cover.

I got to Cyberpunk a little late, round about the time William Gibson’s third novel in the Sprawl Trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive, was released. It’s not my fault I was only 11 when Neuromancer came out and my SF at that age tended to be more Keill Randor: Young Legionary flavoured. By the time I got to Cyberpunk it was all over bar the shouting. I was left to play with the sub-genre’s still warm corpse, but what a corpse! (This paragraph’s gone somewhere I didn’t quite expect. I don’t want people thinking that I’m a literary necrophiliac, or indeed any kind of necrophiliac.)

To me this was SF that was grounded, gritty, had the feeling of realism that was more in line with what I’d been reading in 2000AD, and less to do with the fluffiness of Star Wars, or the shininess of Star Trek. It made sense in terms of what was going on around me in 80’s Britain. These stories weren’t comfortable. They were often critical of various aspects of both society and the SF genre, and they frequently had a nasty edge to them.

Other sub-genres that kicked off at roughly the same time, such as the New Space Opera and Steampunk, have weathered better. I wonder if this is because they are less challenging, more comfortable, and more escapist. After all I would rather live in Iain Banks’ Culture than in one of William Gibson’s Sprawls. On the other hand perhaps Cyberpunk was just too cool for school. I wonder if, as genre fans, we’re just too comfortable in our anoraks, with our flights of fancy. Maybe Cyberpunk went too mainstream, too quickly, and we preferred to live in our genre ghetto, enjoying obscure underground SF like Star Wars.

So I have heard it said that SF is dead, and as I sit next to an alien, travelling on an in-system cutter to the wormhole gate orbiting Ganymede, for my holiday to the icy wastes of Proxima IV I am forced to admit these people are right. There are no more SF stories to tell…oh no wait a minute. If we were living in a Type 4 Kardashev society, maybe there would be no more SF stories to sell, maybe. Claiming SF is dead is a little like suggesting that the US patents office should b eclosed because everything has been invented (like Charles Holland Duell didn’t). One of the reasons that people have suggested that SF is dead, however, is due to the geometric rate that technology is advancing. Now as an SF writer it can be difficult to keep up with the rampaging advance of science and technology but the idea that SF is dead is of course patent nonsense. If we were living in an interstellar society then some aspects of SF might lose a degree of relevance. This criticism does, however, hold up a little better for Cyberpunk. No I’m not plugging my computer into a jack at the back of my neck but my phone can do all sorts of wondrous and mostly baffling things. (I suspect it’s sentient and plotting against me!) We are connected to a global communications network (at least the small percentage of us in the world that have regular computer access are). Virtual Reality seems to be on the cusp of coming into its own. Big business does make far too many decisions for us. Robots are starting to fight wars and whilst society is pretty far from collapse, it is being given a thorough kicking at the moment (and Putin seems determined to turn Eastern Europe into a Jack Womack novel.)

So maybe Cyberpunk ‘died’ because history caught up. Except I still see it flourishing. I see it in the works of writers like Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynold’s and in Hannu Rajaniemi’s amazing Jean de Flambeur sequence.   They are not Cyberpunk stories in themselves, but the influence is two-fold. Firstly it seems difficult to get away from Cyberpunk when dealing with any street level SF culture. Secondly much modern futuristic SF seems to point to a Cyberpunk-style era in the setting’s its fictional history, and perhaps that’s the era we’re living in now.

The observation that Cyberpunk is a self-fulfilling prophecy is of course neither a new or original idea. But of course Cyberpunk is dead. This would explain why this year we’ll see Blade Runner 2 (never have I more nervously anticipated a film), the live action adaption of Ghost in the Shell and the TV serialisation of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

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Cyberpunk looks pretty good despite it’s apparent death.

All I’m trying to say is go easy on the C-word. It’s still okay to write Cyberpunk fiction. Cyberpunk’s still with us, it didn’t die it got sneaky, it subverts from within. It’s worm malware on the genre, but in a good way. So put on the mirror shades, play Front Line Assembly’s Tactical Neural Implant album (I find it slightly ironic that I have it on vinyl), try and forget about Keanu Reeves as you re-read Johnny Mnemonic, and perhaps have a little bit of a re-evaluation of this cruelly maligned sub-genre.

So Bastard Legion Book 1: The Hangman’s Daughter is out on Ebook now and I’m happy to report it has been heavily influenced by cyberpunks, young and old!

Audiobook Sample on SoundCloud for the Hangman’s Daughter (Bastard Legion Book 1)

The-Hangmans-Daughter​

“Four hundred years in the future, the most dangerous criminals are kept in suspended animation aboard prison ships and “rehabilitated” in a shared virtual reality environment. But Miska Corbin, a thief and hacker with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships, the Hangman’s Daughter, and made it her own. Controlled by explosive collars and trained in virtual reality by the electronic ghost of a dead marine sergeant, the thieves, gangsters, murderers, and worse are transformed into Miska’s own private indentured army: the Bastard Legion. Are the mercenaries just for fun and profit, or does Miska have a hidden purpose connected to her covert past?”

Tomorrow the first book in the brand new Bastard Legion series: the Hangman’s Daughter, is out on Kindle (the hardcopy will be coming in October) in the UK here and in the US here from Gollancz.

The Audiobook is also available from Amazon .co.uk and .com.  You can hear a sample from the Audiobook below.

The Hangman’s Daughter: Book 1 of the Bastard Legion series released on Ebook on the 26th of January

hangmans-daughter

 

The Hangman’s Daughter, Book One in the all new Bastard Legion series is out on Ebook on January the 26th (paperback to follow later in the year) and it is also available as an audiobook (!) from here.

Four hundred years in the future, the most dangerous criminals are kept in suspended animation aboard prison ships and “rehabilitated” in a shared virtual reality environment. But Miska Corbin, a thief and hacker with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships, the Hangman’s Daughter, and made it her own. Controlled by explosive collars and trained in virtual reality by the electronic ghost of a dead marine sergeant, the thieves, gangsters, murderers, and worse are transformed into Miska’s own private indentured army: the Bastard Legion. Are the mercenaries just for fun and profit, or does Miska have a hidden purpose connected to her covert past?

Suicide Squad/the Dirty Dozen for lovers of Aliens, a thrilling new down-and-dirty military SF series set in a world of mercenary actions and covert operations.

Artwork for Part 4 the Japanese Edition of War in Heaven!

So part four of War in Heaven is out in Japan on Friday (16/12/2016) from Tokyo Sogensha.  This is a little sad because it means the last of the sensational cover art, this one by the enormously talented Takeshi Oga, that has been brightening up my web site for the last few months.

See the cover art for Veteran here, the cover for parts 1 & 2 of War in Heaven are here, and part 3 is here.

Stunning:

天空の標的4

Artwork for Parts 3 of the Japanese Editions of War in Heaven

Part 3 of War in Heaven is out in Japan today from Tokyo Sogensha and once again the cover is absolutly stunning!

You can see the covers for Veteran here and the covers for the first two parts of War in Heaven here.

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Everybody Be Cool, This is a Robbery

(Spoiler Warning: The below contains mild spoilers for the films Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed, as well as my first two novels Veteran and War in Heaven.)

akira-poster-akira-13827706-1715-2439

So I’ve noticed that cultural appropriation has reared its ugly head again recently. This is thanks mainly to Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival but it has also been a topic of conversation within my social media bubble. At the same time as this ‘conversation’ (I use conversation here to mean increasingly shrill slanging match) was going on my first two novels Veteran and War in Heaven were in the process of being released in Japan by the wonderful publisher Tokyo Sogensha. You can see the beautiful covers here and here. This got me thinking about the debt I owe to Anime in the creation of those two novels and in general in my writing. With this in mind I thought I would talk a little about the three Animes that most influenced Veteran and War in Heaven.

So my introduction to Anime was the same as many of my generation. It came in the form of Battle of the Planets, an American adaption of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman that was aired on the BBC in the late 70s, would you believe? Now Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is obviously the best name for anything ever. I do wonder if Gatchaman had other scholastic Ninja teams. The lesser-known Math Ninja Team Gatchaman? Or Geography Ninja Team Gatchaman for those tricky existential threats involving landscape? Why does the Science Ninja Team get to have all the fun? A little later in the early 80’s on early Saturday morning TV I was also exposed to the brilliantly insane Star Fleet a marionette tokusatu (basically puppet Anime) series originally titled X-Bomber in Japan. It was a bit like a collision between Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and Lexx (not-at-all a headfuck for nine year old me). Then Anime sadly seemed to disappear from my life for a decade or so until the early 90s, where it exploded back into my life spectacularly with Katsuhiro Otomo’s adaption of his own Manga, Akira. For me, watching Akira early one Christmas morning, was like the first time I read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen: rightly, or wrongly I felt things had changed.

akira-1988-original

Akira is a psychic street opera set after World War III in the nightmarish Neo-Tokyo of 2019 (so something to look forward to then). Against a backdrop of gang violence and anti-government terrorism, Tetsuo, a young bike punk keen to prove himself, encounters an esper with psychic powers fleeing from a secret government laboratory. This encounter results in Tetsuo searching for the secret that is Akira, triggering a series of events that threatens to destroy all of Neo-Tokyo.

Cyberpunk as fuck! If you haven’t seen Akira do seek it out. For a film that was made more than twenty-five years ago it still stands up pretty well. The general dystopian tone and atmosphere of the film, as well as the classic C-punk cityscape were in influence in the writing of Veteran. The bike chase scenes were instrumental in developing the scheme racing scene in Trenton in Veteran and later the tunnel racing in War in Heaven. I imagined the Argo Triumph, the bike that Jakob (the protagonist of both the novels) owned in the books looking a lot like the one that the gang leader Kaneda rode in the film (see above). (I do always wonder how much of one’s ‘process’ you should admit to at times like this. I would hope that Akira influenced me rather than I ripped it off.)

Next up: Ghost in the Shell is an animated movie adaption of Masamune Shirow’s Manga of the same name. And speaking of cultural appropriation there has been something of a furore over the casting of Scarlet Johansen in the role of Major Kusanagi the live action remake of GitS (an unfortunate acronym). You can see the eerie nano-teaser for the live action film here.

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So where do I start with this film. It is nearly the perfect cyberpunk film in the way it handles the collision between technology and society. The animation, the sound design and music are all beautiful. The film is visually breath taking, punctuated with captivating moments of stillness that allow us to tour the incredible environment of the monstrous, alienating future city. Where GitS influenced me most writing Veteran and War in Heaven was the themes of self-identity in the face of a particularly invasive tech (this is handled much, much better by the film maker, my handling was pretty clumsy) and the possibility of new life born of technology.

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(I have this as a poster on my office wall.)

The third and final film is the 2004 computer animated anime Appleseed. This is a re-interpretation of the all-ready adapted manga also by Masamune Shirow. Less dystopian than Akira and Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed tells of the trials and tribulations besetting an attempt to build a utopian society out of the ashes of World War III. More than anything Appleseed was a significant influence on the tech in Veteran and War in Heaven, particularly the power armour/combat exoskeletons and mecha. I was very much taken by the pseudo-realistic projection of military technology, it may be unrealistic and impractical but it was convincing. Also I always imagined the Mastodon pistol that Jakob carries in the two books to look very similar to the huge revolver that Colonel Hades carries.

You may have noticed a couple of things from my three selections above. The most recent film in the list was released twelve years ago. (I’ve just done the maths, it came as a shock to me as well. I must be getting old.) This is not to say I have stopped watching Anime. Quite the contrary I tend to watch a couple of episodes of a series every day as I exercise, thus proving that Anime is good for you. Recently I have watched, enjoyed and would recommend: Black Lagoon, Aldnoah.Zero, Kuromukuro, The Irregular at Magic High School (took me a bit to get into this one but it was worth it), Psycho Pass, Knights of Sidonia and most recently the superb Sword Art Online. You may also have noticed that I’ve not talked much about Manga. Well my guilty secret is that I don’t read Manga, for no other reason than as a total fiction junkie I don’t have the time. I know this is wrong, I will read it all when I retire or figure out how to do it as I sleep.

So am I thief? Well probably, most authors are whether we admit it or not, we just tend to call the things we steal from ‘our influences’ (look you can see me doing it above). Am I cultural thief? Well that’s more difficult because I have absolutely no idea where the line is between cultural appropriation and cross-cultural pollination. The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo became the Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, and to my mind the world would be a sadder place if they hadn’t. The existence of the westerns in no way invalidates the genius of Akira Kurosawa, and one would hope it went some way towards introducing Kurosawa to wider audiences. Speaking of Kurosawa doesn’t Ran have more than a passing resemblance to King Lear? And the Unforgiven becomes the, er… other Unforgiven. Do we want to discuss the influence of the Western on Chinese cinema? Or even of the Godfather and Miami Vice on the John Woo’s blood spattered gun-ballets? On the other hand I don’t feel that one of the most significant events in Japanese history should become a story about a white guy. And maybe that’s the thing, everybody has a line for this sort of thing. A point where they decide it’s gone from influence or homage to taking the piss. That line is, however, going to be subjective, which will of course lead to SCREAMING! EVERYBODY’S SCREAMING ON THE INTERNET!

The three examples I’ve cited above are a good case in point. I suspect Akira would be the poorer without the influence of Ridley Scott’s take on Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner. (Yes I know the book’s called Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep.) I suspect that Ghost in the Shell might not have existed without William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, not to mention the works of cyberpunk authors like Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Walter Jon Williams and others. And Appleseed, along with all mecha fiction in general, owes a great deal to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and War of the Worlds. (We always seem to forget that Wells pretty much invented the modern mech. They landed not far away from where I’m sitting right now). I’m not saying that Anime/Japanese speculative fiction exist because of Western speculative fiction, just that this is/should be a two way street.

I don’t agree with much of Shriver’s speech. Obviously if one group of students is belittling the ethnicity of another group of students by reducing it to a stereotypical caricature it’s racism, regardless of the original intent. On the other hand a discussion with the people in question might be more useful than ‘though shalt not’ pronouncements accompanied by a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, because I suspect it was a lapse in judgement rather than a cross burning. (I personally also believe the suggestion that western access to Sushi is cultural appropriation is somewhat spurious, but then I fear being forced to return to boiled meat and cabbage if we were to somehow forced back to culturally appropriate food.) Two things I do agree with Shriver about:

1). We have to be able to write about cultures beyond on our own. Leaving aside how much I don’t just want to write about the white middle classes, fiction has to be representational of the culture and society we live in. That’s just not going to happen if we imprison ourselves in cultural ghettoes. We do, however, have to show respect for the cultures beyond our own that we write about. This is why research is your friend (and entitlement your enemy). In some ways I think Shriver’s suggestion that we are being told we can’t write about other cultures by some PC thought-police is a straw man argument. That’s not what the discussion (and it should be a discussion, not an argument, not a series of dictates) around cultural appropriation is about.

2). We have to be able to talk about it. In fact we have to be able to talk about anything, nothing should be off limits, and we have to be able to talk without it descending into accusations of bigotry (at least initially). So much of the rancour surrounding cultural issues at the moment seems to come down to a lack of understanding. I’m not saying that there are not some poisonous sexist, racist, trans and homophobic fuckers out there but a lot of the time it seems, to me anyway, that we’re dealing with a knowledge gap, a lack of experience of the issues at hand. Few of us have sprung fully clothed from Zeus’s forehead with all the knowledge required to navigate the complicated tides of our beautiful, sprawling, vibrant metaculture. Mistakes are going to be made (particular by those of us who’re a little older). We may require a little patience from (our often self appointed) moral guardians, as we tend to have more in common than not.

 

 

 

Artwork for Parts 1 & 2 of the Japanese Editions of War in Heaven

So after last week’s post of the amazing covers for the Japenese edition of Veteran from Tokyo Sogensha, I can now reveal the first two covers of the four part translation of War In Heaven.  Part 1 is out this month, part two is out in October.  I’m sure that you’ll agree they are every bit as amazing!

War in Heaven 1:

天空01

War in Heaven 2:

wih2

Beautiful Japanese Editions of Veteran

Earlier in the summer Tokyo Sogensha released the Japanese editions of Veteran with some incredible artwork from the very talented illustrator and concept artists Kiyoshi Arai (Final Fantasy) and cover designer Kazuya Yoshinaga (a.k.a. Juryoku Iwagoh), and with very kind blurb words from the multiple Seiun Award-winning author Issui Ogawa.

Here they are in their full, unadulterated glory:

Part 1: veteran1

 

Part 2:

veteran2

Part 3:

veteran3

Heroes & Rules

thats no moon

 

(This blog contains spoilers for Sicario and Captain America: Civil War.)

I’ve been thinking about heroes recently, particularly as it pertains to Sicario and the failure of Captain America in Civil War. We like our gritty, edgy, often morally compromised (anti)heroes. With the success of Deadpool and the release of the ever-so-slightly-psychotic Suicide Squad, it seems that this has never been truer. We’re over the square jawed, right-on-his-side, morally simplistic heroes of yesteryear (though I wonder if this was ever truly the case). Nowadays even Superman’s got a dark side. Mad Max, James Bond, absolutely everyone in Game of Thrones, Deadpool, Deadshot, other characters with dead in their names, seem more interesting somehow, more grown up. Besides everyone knows that heroes are boring, villains are much more fun. Though when your heroes aren’t terribly pleasant the villains have to be that much worse. All of these are variants of the existential hero, most of them are disillusioned, let down by a corrupt society that they have chosen to reject, why then would they obey the rules? Hmm rules. We do like a rebel.

Which brings me to Captain America. Captain America is my favourite Avenger. With an unabashed lack of comic-patriotism I even prefer him to the darker, more complex, Captain Britain (presumably soon to become Captain England & Wales when Scotland gets its own captain). My first truly memorable experience with Cap was in the late 80s during writer Mark Gruenwald’s epic ten-year run. When I started reading, Caps had been forced to give up the mantle of Captain America due to legal wrangling by the US Government who wanted him to work for them. Already troubled by the corruption he had encountered within the Government (most notably the Nuke incident) he decided to go his own way.

Now this may sound rebellious, he had, after all, turned his back on (governmental) service to his county. The difference is that for the antihero/existential hero the ends justify the means. For Cap the ends do not justify the means. He is a man with a tremendous moral code, a man of honour. To my mind Captain America is the near perfect critique of the American Experiment. He embodies the America that you want, the America that stood by their allies during World War 2, the America that sent people to the Moon, the America of innovation, of the entrepreneur, of civil rights, and all the other countless positive contributions that the US has made. Contributions that we frequently like to pretend don’t exist when Europeans look down our noses at the ‘colonials’. It is the America that Trump is terrified of, because it is an America of fairness, hard work and a level playing field where everything is possible. It is not the America of privilege and trickle down economics. (Obviously this is completely subjective and my own interpretation.) Cap is America’s assumed moral imperative, uncorrupted. For my money Captain America embodies truth and justice much more so than a space god in a red cape, and part of this is because he’s just a bloke from Brooklyn (though arguably Superman’s a bloke from Kansas). (All of the above are reasons why I didn’t like the Ultimates Cap. It was an impressive ground-breaking and very interesting series but I didn’t get on with that particular incarnation.)

Now fast forward thirty years and Captain America is on the cinema screen. The writers and Chris Evans‘ charismatic, humorous, man-out-of-his-time performance have done a wonderful job of breathing life into what could have very easily been a walking-talking cliché. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe it is Cap who stands up to the excesses of Tony Stark. It seems to me that one of the main reasons for their conflict is that Stark, in Cap’s eyes anyway, is always looking for a quick fix. Cap, on the other hand, believes that problems require hard work to solve. It’s almost a political or class struggle. At the core of it is the difference between the two men. Stark, a more complex character, believes that the end justifies the means, he believes in cutting corners to achieve a positive result, he is much more the existential hero. This is seen most obviously in Age of Ultron, where it goes horribly wrong and puts the entire world at risk. Cap, on the other hand, is a man whose life is governed by rules, some self imposed, others not. We can rely on Cap to do the right thing. That is until Civil War.

The problem is twofold. Firstly, Cap trying to help Barnes avoid capture. I understand Cap’s loyalty to his childhood friend. I understand him wanting to protect him from being murdered by the Black Panther but surely the safest way to do all this is bring Bucky in for trial and help. The irony is its only after Cap has made his decision to keep Bucky out of the authorities hands that Everett K. Ross (I think, I’m going by memory here) tells them that they’re just going to lock up Bucky and throwaway the key without a trial. At which point Cap would be completely justified in going beyond the law, because it is the law that has failed. Secondly is the rejection of oversight for the Avengers. Cap all but says he would rather use his own judgement. This is the end justifying the means. This is cutting corners. Cap provides hope that the ‘system’ isn’t utterly broken, that it can be fixed for a better tomorrow, by rejecting it as corrupt it removes that hope and we’re left with just another antihero. The role reversal with Stark is well done but suddenly Cap seems to have clay feet and he’s just the same as every other morally ambiguous ‘hero’. He is on a slippery slope.

Which brings me to Sicario. Sicario was a slow burn film for me. I wasn’t sure about it initially but kept on being drawn back to watch it, and with each viewing I find something else interesting that I like about it. If you haven’t seen it watch it when you’re feeling patient, it takes its time. The principle character in Sicario is an FBI SWAT team member called Kate Mercer, played by Emily Blunt in a wonderfully understated and nuanced performance. Mercer is a very by-the-book character. She believes in the rules and follows them as best she can. Much of the theme of the film centres on the price of ends-justifies-the-means thinking, as Mercer is sucked further and further into the corrupt world of the Mexican drug war. At every juncture Mercer tries to do the right thing, tries to avoid the cutting corners, tries to follow the rules until… Well I’m not going to tell you, go and watch the film.

In the special features for Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, the writer, says something quite interesting: there was some question as to whether or not the character of Mercer should be female. It was the usual bollocks about whether or not a female would be physically capable of the kind of things that Mercer does in the film (despite females all over the world physically doing the sort of thing that Mercer does in the film but hey-ho). Sheridan’s response was that Mercer’s adherence to the rules, which in turn provides her near-incorruptible nature, meant that she had to be female. Now we need to be careful of sweeping generalisation made about anything, not just gender, but the thing is, I kind of know what he means. I’m not saying it’s a universal law, just that it tracks with my experiences. Many of the women I know have to work harder than their male counterparts to achieve the same level of success. In the majority of cases they abide by the rules much more so than male colleagues who are more likely to cut corners, or make ends-justify-the-means decision. Now let me repeat this is not a universal law, this is just my experience.

So what? Well other than wanting to see more intelligent action(ish) thrillers like Sicario, maybe I’d like to see more protagonists who are less morally compromised, more characters who follow the rules like Mercer does, because rules are there for a reason. Because when we embrace ends-justify-the-means thinking there’s a good chance that we become the bad guys. But of course we’re talking about fiction it couldn’t possibly have any effect in the real world, could it?

All of this is of course is rank hypocrisy on my part. Many of my protagonists (I tend to avoid the word hero) are morally challenged, or in the case of Woodbine Scab in the Age of Scorpio trilogy, downright villainous (though somewhat worryingly he is my partner’s favourite character). That said one of the themes of Veteran, my first novel, was whether it’s possible to be a good person in an utterly corrupt world.

With characters like Mercer and Hermione in the Harry Potter series, I wonder if there is a micro trend of female characters as our (society’s) moral advisors, if not moral guardians. (Though the gender roles are reversed with Black Widow and Cap in the Winter Soldier.) One thing I do believe is that we should reject the idea that the ‘good’ person, the moral character is somehow less complex and less interesting than the more morally challenged characters, as I’m starting to find all these dark sides a little samey now (y’know except my own characters). Part of my thinking behind this is if I was given a choice between Kate Mercer from Sicario and Jack Bauer from 24 to safeguard my security, I’d choose the former every time.

But hey, it’s only stories.

(I’ve closed the comments on this because I don’t like WordPress for discussions. If you want to talk about the blog, or anything else then I’m happy to on my Facebook page.)