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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)

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“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

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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:

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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.)

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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.

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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:

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War in Heaven 2:

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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:

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Part 3:

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Heroes & Rules

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(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.)

The Beauty of Our Weapons

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So last week Crises and Conflicts, an anthology celebrating the first 10 years of the superb NewCon Press, was released, along with its companion anthology Now We Are Ten. The last story in Crises and Conflicts is by yours truly and is called the Beauty of Our Weapons (with apologies to Leonard Cohen) and I have to say I’m very pleased with the story. It is set in the same world of the Age of Scorpio trilogy, and contains a number of cameos from a few familiar faces. It tells the story of a technological immortal who is present at a number of turning points in military history connected to weapons development (with the normal: it’s fiction caveat). I was lucky enough that Ian Whates, the owner and editor-in-chief for NewCon, chose BoW as inspiration for the cover art. There is however a problem with the story, it is inspired by a facet of my personality that I am not entirely comfortable with: my fascination with weapons.

I’m not sure where the fascination comes from. Perhaps it was a result of all the role-playing games I played growing up, though I suspect it was earlier than that. Action Man? Or the way that World War II still seemed to being fought on TV screens, in comics, and even in the conversations of my elders in the 70s? Who knows? Doubtless, like anything else it is the result of a number of different things. I remember similar obsessions in many of my friends as a child. Perhaps I just didn’t grow up.

I don’t own any weapons other than a Native American stone-axe that’s a wall decoration, and a broken taiaha. (My partner owns a katana but it’s in our relationship agreement, under the no-edged weapons clause, that she can’t use it for conflict resolution.) I am pleased that I live in a country with very strict gun controls, and I wouldn’t like to see that change. I did briefly own a realistic-looking airsoft replica rifle but I wasn’t terribly comfortable with it in the house. In fact I could never really think of a good reason for owning a weapon. On the whole I’m not really a fan of ‘gun culture’ but I keep on coming back to the same question: do I tacitly support it by writing about such things, which opens a bigger question of personal responsibility and social cost.

When something like the Pulse shootings in Orlando happens and we try to find a reason, because we desperately have to understand, so that things can make sense again. How can so many people be enjoying themselves one moment, only to be cut down in the next. And the even more powerful urge beyond the need to understand, is the urge to punish. So we pick our favourite scapegoats: easy access to guns, mental illness, religious beliefs, computer games, lifestyle choices and so on and there’s lots of shouting.

The problem is of course, often regardless of actual information, we’ve already made our decisions based on based on our own particular preconceptions, on our political, social and/or religious beliefs. And as anyone who’s ever gotten involved in the zero-sum game that is an online argument will know, we become bullet-proof, or rather information proof, blind to anything that doesn’t fit our own, often narrow perceptions of the world around us. This is particularly the case if we rarely move from behind our keyboards, if our window into the world is only a high-res monitor.

Using the American gun-control argument as an example of my particular confirmation bias here’s what I think: I admit that gun control is a much more complex issue in the US than it is in many other countries, and more so than many who are pro-gun control are prepared to admit. I also concede that gun control wouldn’t eliminate illegal weapons over night. However at the end of the day if guns are more difficult to get hold of it’s more difficult for them to be used in mass shootings that target civilians. To my mind this is common sense.

Part of the problem I think is two fold. Firstly the discussion is being led by powerful lobbyists with commercial interests, there’s not a lot in it for them to have a fair and honest debate on the subject. Secondly, and most importantly, and this is something I talk about in Beauty of Weapons, I think there’s a hypocrisy in why people want to own weapons. I find many of the reasons that are put across by the likes of the NRA as somewhat spurious. I think if people were really honest about why they want to own guns it would be similar to the reason that I write about them. They really, really, really like them. Whether or not that is ‘okay’, why we are fascinated by tools of destruction is a question for a psychologist rather than this blog. I suspect such fascination has been going on since the first ape caved another ape’s head in with a rock. We long ago imbued instruments of violence with awe, with supernatural significance. I suspect it’s now part of our racial psyche. Think you’re above it? I’ve seen the most liberal pacifist suddenly feel imbued with a sense of power when handling a firearm, which is one of the reasons that I have nothing to do with them.

This love of weapons has a social cost, however, and that is 7,241 firearm related deaths and 181 mass shootings in America in 2016 as of writing this in mid-July. (And please bare in mind this doesn’t include the knock on costs to society such as the cost of treating firearms injury, bereavement associated costs, the costs of law enforcement in a heavily armed society etc.) To my mind that is the real gun control question. Is the society in question prepared to pay that cost? If so, then have at it! If not, then perhaps the issue needs some examining.

So there’s more to it than the above but in a nutshell this is what my particular opinion, pending more/better information, is on the issue of gun control at the moment. Now before you reach for the keys to type angry messages agreeing or disagreeing with the above remember we’re talking about confirmation bias and individual responsibility not gun control, it just happens to tie in to the story.

So I’m in favour of gun control. For complicated reasons I’m not going to go into I have had access to firearms over the years, and even had the opportunity to work on the periphery of the arms industry, all of which I have turned down. I have no interest in owning a firearm. This means none of it’s my fault, right? Yay! I can abrogate responsibility! I can take the high moral ground when something awful happens! What’s more I can make myself feel better by looking down on other people who do tacitly contribute to gun violence! Because me and my friends ‘know’ they’re stupid, right?

Or:

What happens we start to self examine? What happens if instead of screaming into the echo chamber of social media we ask ourselves difficult questions? And then what happens if everyone did the same thing? It raises some tricky questions. With so much bias in our increasingly counter-factual age where do we find information rather than opinion?

So let’s see if I’m capable of this: I write action packed stories… no let’s call a spade, a spade. I write violent stories, and I write violent stories because I enjoy writing violent stories. Hopefully they have a lot more to offer but that’s for others to decide. An ingredient of said fictional violence is the weaponry used to commit the violence. So do I contribute to ‘gun culture’? Do I have some responsibility in this matter? It would be easy to say no, after all people don’t have a Pavlovian response to the media we consume, we’re just not wired that way. However I remember years ago interviewing a clinical psychologist who worked at Broadmoor, a high security psychiatric hospital in the South of England. We were discussing the refusal of the BBFC to (at the time) allow a video release of Reservoir Dogs and a cinema certification for Natural Born Killers. She agreed that there was not a Pavlovian response to such films but that if you saturate a society with violent imagery then it can’t fail to have an effect. We know that society and the arts (sorry, couldn’t think of a better word) interact, we know that they both influence each other, it would seem foolish to assume that influence is always beneficial. Now this is open to interpretation, there’s no real way to measure that effect on a society as a whole, there’s arguably a catharsis in consuming violent media, and we are, statistically speaking, living in one of the safest and least violent periods of history (though some areas of this part of history are lot safer than others). If, however, I accept her point and I did and I do, then I can’t just wash my hands of it all and say: ‘Nothing to do with me?’ Liberal hand ringing? Perhaps, but this isn’t about guilt, it’s about whether or not we can examine what we do, how we think, and our most precious beliefs.

Pissed off about the idea that the violent media we all love so much could bear any responsibility for the seven-thousand-plus firearm related deaths? Clearly it’s the ready availability of guns, right? (And if you like violent media and guns you’re probably really pissed off.) But what if instead of getting angry we looked for some information on the matter? A possible place to start could be On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Dave Grossman. (I think anyone who ever wants to write about violence in any genre should read this book.) In the book Grossman discusses how first person shooter style simulators are used by various military organisations to help overcome the moral and psychological difficulties inherent in taking another person’s life. He goes on to conclude that FPS games are in effect murder simulators. Now I have worked on the fringes of the computer games industry. I have written tie in fiction for Crysis 3, a first person shooter, and when I do play computer games they tend to be FPS games. Having read the book, however, I really struggled to disagree with his findings. Now perhaps you’ve got more better information on this matter. Great. My point, however, is that I didn’t want to believe what Grossman was saying, I didn’t like his findings, just as I didn’t like what I was hearing from the Broadmoor psychologist. I want to enjoy my simulated fictional violence guilt free. I want the bad things to be someone else’s fault. I want to abrogate responsibility.

So what should I do? Pack it all in and write Rainbow Brite fanfic, well maybe, but not today. I guess my rambling point is that we need to question, all the time and not just externally. I’m not setting myself up as a paragon. I’ve got my own set of prejudices and preconceptions, but we should at least try. We need to question what we think and more importantly why we think it. And it’s exhausting, and perhaps sometimes we disappear up our own arseholes, but the reasons that bad things happen are complex, solutions to those problems even more so. We’ve got no chance of arriving at those solutions if we’re all just screaming into an echo chamber desperate for validation. Then we’re just part of the problem.

“Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.”

                  -Sir James Dewar

(I’ve closed the comments on this because I don’t like WordPress for discussions. I’m not terribly interested in yet another rehash of the gun control argument, purely because the sides seem so entrenched and I’ve not seen anything new brought to the argument for a long time. If you want to talk about the blog or the story, or anything else then I’m happy to on my Facebook Page.)