Category Archives: reviews

The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

Before other things got in the way, I’d hoped to write about some of the books other Sharke judges had put on their shortlists. Since then the actual Sharke and Clarke shortlists have been chosen, and the award finally made, to Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad in case you missed it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t return to my original plan. I’ve been wanting to write about Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives. More fool me, I didn’t include it on my own shortlist, which was silly, given that I’ve argued often enough that the novella is the word length par excellence for sf; and given too that we’re in the middle of a resurgence of interest in the novella as a literary form.

I will talk about the science-fictional elements of The Arrival of Missives in due course, but I’m going to begin by thinking out loud a little about what Arrival initially most reminded me of, certainly in its initial stages, and that’s Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, the story of Jean Brodie, the outspoken teacher with unusual methods, working in an atmosphere of stultifying conformity to transform a group of girls into la crème de la crème by countering the school’s emphasis on hard knowledge with a diet of art, romantic poetry, and her own extensive views on the world. It’s funny, yes, but tragic too, though not necessarily for the reasons I think people generally suppose. It’s tempting, perhaps, to see Jean Brodie fighting a lonely battle against a Gradgrindian emphasis on facts, but turn back to Spark’s original novella and you are quickly reminded that it is about Jean Brodie, an egotistical monster, overweening, self-regarding, deeply manipulative. She cares very little about the future of her girls, or about what they will do in the world, but a great deal about what they can do for her.

Thus, Brodie’s pleasure lies not in educating the girls for their own sakes, but in using them as proxies to play off her ex-lover, the one-armed art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, against her would-be lover, Gordon Lowther, the singing teacher. One of the most striking things is Brodie’s cruelty towards her protégées, especially poor put-upon Mary, who can do nothing right, though her behaviour towards Sandy and Rose is not that much better, as she manoeuvres Rose towards Teddy Lloyd’s bed, and attempts to enlist Sandy as her spy. The difference lies, perhaps, in the fact that Mary is desperate to please Miss Brodie whereas Sandy is much more detached. Yes, she and her friend Jenny are, in their way, obsessed with Jean Brodie, but their obsession is articulated through the collecting of knowledge about her. And what it is to have knowledge, as Sandy will come to realise.

For, after all, train a girl as a spy, and what is the likelihood that she will spy on you as well? Thus, much of the fascination in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie lies not in Brodie’s hideously misguided enthusiasm and admiration of Mussolini and Hitler, but in the fact that Brodie has sown the seeds of her own destruction by creating a figure who will watch her, cold-eyed, learn her strengths, such as they are, and her weaknesses, which are many more than she will ever allow, and then use them against her at the right moment. If Jean Brodie has played a long game, then Sandy, her pupil, has played an even longer one, and played it better, not least because she recognises the damage that someone like Jean Brodie can do to genuinely impressionable minds. In fact, the key thing about most of the Brodie Set is that for all Jean Brodie’s careful selection of them, they will mostly escape her influence, though she will inevitably leave her mark on them. Sandy’s method of escape will prove to be possibly the most extreme, perhaps because she has paid most attention to Jean Brodie’s ways.

But what has this to do with The Arrival of Missives? It was the presence of Mr Tiller, the school master with a war wound, physically disabled, ‘not a real man’, that set me off on that particular train of thought, but the question I eventually found myself considering was the girlhood of Jean Brodie. Where does a creature like that come from? Arrival does not directly answer that question, but I feel the two novellas are somehow in dialogue with one another. Having said that, I believe Arrival is also loosely in conversation with a whole group of narratives published in the late 1920s, early 1930s, all written by women, and addressing issues concerning class and the education of young women. I’m thinking of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, and Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood, to name but three I happen to be familiar with, but there are many more. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961, but it’s set within the same time frame, as is arrival.

If there is a difference between Shirley Fearn and the other protagonists, it is perhaps that she is never less than utterly sure of herself, and of her destiny. There is little in the way of struggle, little to cause self-doubt. She knows with a burning certainty that she is intended for greater things than life as a farmer’s wife, and has determined that becoming a teacher will be her route out. For the reader, Shirley’s ambition is a disappointment, for it is not teaching in and of itself that absorbs her but the thought of teaching alongside Mr Tiller, her own teacher, with whom she believes herself to be in love. Thus, her horizons are already more limited than she seems to realise, even though she is aware that those set for her by others – her parents, the villagers – are just as limited. So, Shirley’s determination is less focused than she might believe.

But there are things that Shirley is aware of, not least that she is under constant scrutiny – her daily routines are so well-known she needs to account for even the slightest deviation, despite all her protestations that she can come and go as she likes – yet she is naively convinced that somehow, when it counts, she is invisible. She assumes she can apply to the teacher training college in Taunton without anyone noticing, whereas the moment she takes her letter to the post office, it becomes the talk of the village. She believes that her love for her teacher is a secret, yet everything about her screams the knowledge to even the least observant person. She may believe herself to be devious and powerful, but bookish Shirley Fearn is herself an open book.

The village, as we will learn, has a completely different plan for Shirley – and I don’t think it would be going too far to say that the entire village does connive in this. As the only farmer’s only child, Shirley will inherit the farm, but it is already presumed that she must marry in order to maintain the farm. Shirley might present herself as being as free-spirited as Bathsheba Everdene, but unlike Bathsheba, she has made no attempt to understand how the farm works, and from the village’s point of view she cannot be relied on to run it properly. And this is important for the village, at a time when many would still be looking to it for work of one kind or another.

Post-World War One, the need to maintain continuity is even more important, perhaps, given that so many have not returned. There is the perceived need to restore what has been lost, and to prevent it being lost again. That deeper attachment to land and family lends a folk-horror flavour to the narrative as the farmer and the church elders settle among themselves that Shirley will be May Queen, with all the attention that brings with it. It is also, though they don’t quite say it, a sexually charged occasion, and everyone has already settled on who Shirley’s husband will be – Daniel Redmore, the younger son of the blacksmith: clever, bookish, not unlike Shirley herself, and with absolutely no interest whatsoever in running a farm, although no one seems to have realised this. Like Shirley, his intention is to get away. In many respects he understands better than Shirley does what is involved in getting away. The question is, how can they achieve it when so many people have already determined their future.

As a result of a fumbling encounter during the May Day celebrations Daniel, whose lack of interest in farm affairs is brutally underlined by his having no idea whatsoever about how sex works, believes that he has ‘compromised’ Shirley, and must therefore do the decent thing. Shirley knows perfectly well that this is not the case – the encounter holds more significance for her because she is an active participant and has become acutely aware of her power over Daniel, and how different her feelings are to those she has for Mr Tiller. She wants Daniel as much as he wants her, if not more. The ‘compromise’ is a technicality, and yet she is willing to abandon her plans for teacher training for the immediacy of marriage, and a new status within the village.

We might argue that Shirley’s interest lies in finding a situation where she remains the centre of attention: “It will soon be past midnight, and I will no longer be anyone’s Queen’ (84). That, though, would be a little unfair to Shirley. She is struggling to understand what has happened and seemingly powerless to stop the marriage bandwagon as it rumbles on. Everyone assumes, approvingly, she is pregnant; that is what was expected of her. She knows full well she is not, and that she has effectively deceived Daniel.

They said I was clever.

I see now they meant that I was bookish, and suited to becoming a learned woman. A learned woman is a very different object from a wise man. I have had no experience of life; how could I see all the traps, particularly the ones that looked like my own choices, my own happiness? Keats did not warn me, and neither did Dickens. I did not find myself within their writings. (85)

Whether Shirley does truly understand, even now, I’m not sure. To be bookish does not mean one is necessarily suited to becoming a learned woman (and how eighteenth-century that sounds). But if she is correct in realising that books could not warn her, Shirley is nonetheless not asking another question a bright girl ought to ask – why are there no books that might warn her? Evidently, she has not read Middlemarch; one can therefore only assume that Shirley’s access to reading material has also been somewhat limited, and this comes as no surprise, given her situation.

There is a mystery embedded within this story, and it takes us back to the presence of Mr Tiller, and hence to the presence within Mr Tiller. As the story opens, Shirley sees all her happiness as lying with Mr Tiller, the school teacher whom she idolises yet we know very little about him. What we do know seems mostly to be conjecture. He was apparently, wounded badly during the war; he moves stiffly, uneasily. The rumour in the village is that he is ‘not a real man’, which is usually code for his injuries being such that he has no sexual function. Shirley knows well enough what the term means but believes she will engaged in a relationship that is sacred, above such base needs, because her love and their holy mission as educators will be sufficient to sustain them. We might smile at her naivete, but it is as well to recognise that this is a stage in growing up – the interest in relationships coupled with the unwillingness to commit to an idea of physicality.

At this stage, Shirley’s obsession is such that she resorts to spying on Mr Tiller, and thus makes the discovery that indeed Mr Tiller is not a real man: he is in part composed of rock. This is the single most remarkable moment of the narrative, so much so that, rather like Shirley, we might find it difficult to comprehend.

It is solid, and juts forth from the bottom of his ribcage, making a mountain range in miniature, sunk into the body in places and erupting forth in others. There are seams of a bright material within it that catch the lamplight, and glitter, delicate and silvery as spider thread (15).

Isn’t that an extraordinary image? My first thought was to imagine Mr Tiller as one of Milton’s fallen angels. However, it would seem that Shirley has not studied Paradise Lost as the thought does not occur to her. In fact, she seems not to have any frame of reference whatsoever other than the geological. And of course she doesn’t. In this world, there is no science fiction. Hugo Gernsback has not yet invented science fiction as a genre, and it seems unlikely that Shirley Fearn has yet encountered the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. One wonders what she will make of them when she does. And will she later chance upon the work of Olaf Stapledon? Because it is his perception of a massive future history of Earth that seems to me to come closest here to Mr Tiller’s account of being a vehicle for a being or beings attempting to shape the history of Earth, and the massive distances in time and space that their story encompasses.

Even his name is evocative, suggesting, as it does, his role as a means of finding a safe passage through potential dangers. But whose hand, we might ask, is on the tiller? His story implies that Mr Tiller himself is entirely reliant on whatever entity it is that resides in him – he says as much – and thus in no position to question its diktats if he wants to remain alive. And one might suspect that having survived the war to end all wars, he would be only too willing to ensure that the same does not happen again. Yet he, the supposedly educated man, does not question the story the beings have told him. Instead, he is focused on ensuring that Shirley Fearn fulfils her destiny as the mother of great men. Like everyone else, he knows that Shirley is infatuated with him, and he exploits her feelings, unformed as they are, for what he perceives to be the greater good.

What we have, then, is a mirroring on a macrocosmic scale of the situation in Westerbridge. For the villagers, it is important that Shirley marry Daniel, and that they keep the farm going. How would they respond to hear Daniel proposing that he and Shirley might move away and live their lives as they want? For the mysterious rock, it is vital that Shirley and Daniel marry. Or, to be precise, it is vital that Daniel does not marry Phyllis Clemens. So Shirley’s significance resides in the fact that she is not Phyllis rather than in the fact of her being Shirley. It’s not her they want except as a convenient receptacle for Daniel’s sperm. Tiller, and the people he represents, are in it entirely for themselves – there is no interest in either Shirley or Daniel. They are pawns in the biggest game imaginable.

It is only late in in the story, when Shirley demands to speak to the people controlling the rock, that she begins, finally, to question the story she has been told, and to see what is really going on: the absence of women in the world created by the men of the rock, the absence of anyone except old white men. We have moved from a Stapledonian apprehension of vast historical cycles to a much more human dimension. Shirley is faced with a dilemma: will this world come about if she and Daniel do not have children, or if they do? And does she even want this world to come about, given what has already happened? Tiller has committed murder to save the people of the rock, and it’s clear that Shirley’s life is of little interest to him; the same is true of Daniel’s. Their job is to fulfil the prophecy; and it’s probably not World War Two that Tiller is concerned with but something so far in the future it’s beyond human comprehension.

It’s at this point that Shirley makes a genuine sacrifice. She has come to understand that she and Daniel might have a real future together, though it won’t be quite the one she might have romantically imagined.

Truth be told, the more time I spend with [Daniel] the more I appreciate that I could love him. For love is not the high ideal of beauty, of sacrifice, of noble deeds and chaste embraces that I had imagined when once I dreamed of Mr Tiller. It is a dirty business, of wanting and struggling and making do, and being each other’s comfort because the world is cruel and there are few who want to do right by you with no thought of their own needs. I feel the glimmerings of that kind of love with Daniel, I think. And when he touches me I feel something altogether different. Not love, but want. I want him. If I will not get anything else from this life that I desire, why can I not have this one thing? Why can I not have Daniel to distract me? (88)

This is an extraordinary passage, where Shirley finds truth in uncertainty rather than in the beauty offered by Keats, as provided by Mr Tiller. Almost too late she realises that Keats and his ilk were nothing but a palliative. Similarly, she has come to understand that her infatuation with Tiller was just that, and nothing more. Her revealing to Tiller that she is not pregnant, and her decision to call off the wedding to thwart Tiller’s plans, prompt him to take more drastic action, murdering Phyllis Clemens, Daniel’s other potential partner, and then vanishing.

Perhaps the most surprising person in all this is Shirley’s mother, who has seemingly thwarted her ambition all along. Now, when it is far too late, she finally confides in Shirley. Through Shirley’s eyes we have seen her as someone who can’t be trusted or relied on, someone Shirley cannot turn to. Now she says:

‘I wanted you to be better, to be beyond all this.’ She gestures at the ground, the sky. ‘But the more you learned, the further you got away from me, until I could not recognise myself in you. I have been so lonely, watching you make your plans from such a distance, with your head in the clouds. And I became bitter as you excluded me. I could not understand it. But this act [Shirley’s breaking off her engagement] – this I understand.’ (109)

Jonathan McCalmont suggests the novella’s ending is botched, and I’m not going to disagree with that, though I’d perhaps say fumbled. It’s all a little bit too hopeful, a little too Wellsian – the presence of the tandem a little bit ‘Daisy, Daisy’; Shirley and Daniel wobbling hesitantly into an uncertain but perhaps hopeful future has a flavour of Mr Polly and Ann Veronica about it. If they stay together, will they make something of their lives? One wants them to, of course, because they are young, but old enough to know they can’t go one as before. But are they hungry enough to survive? Will they ride out of a Wells novel into something a little more J.B. Priestley? And either way, what will Shirley do? She has rejected the idea of teaching: ‘No more rooms of quiet, seated, suppressed children’ (109), and with that no more thoughts of shaping young people’s lives. She has observed, like Sandy, but unlike Sandy the stories in Shirley’s head have up until now been about herself entirely and have not included others. Where Shirley is like Jean Brody is in her inability to genuinely share and confide, though she is belatedly coming to realise the necessity to do so. In the moment where she says to Daniel ‘I know my own body’, one senses both her frustration, and the beginnings of a path through the world.

Shagreen, or chagrin: the shadows begin to gather

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,

And he shows them pearly white

I’m going to try keep the shark references to a minimum over the next few months, not least because my fellow Shadow Clarke Award judge, Vajra Chandrasekera, is already staking out that piece of territory quite nicely, but that snatch of song just popped into my head. ‘The Shadow knows!’ flitted through my brain as I finished that sentence; I have no idea why, as I’d mostly been preoccupied with thinking about Babylon 5 until that point. Sometimes, the early-morning brain is a startling mish-mash of cultural fragments. But now, after a cup of tea, it’s time to work.

A week ago, Nina Allan announced that a group of writers, critics, readers and Clarke-watchers have come together to form a shadow jury for the 2017 Arthur Clarke Award. As Nina goes on to say:

We will be following the Clarke Award right from the beginning, selecting our ideal shortlists from the submissions, reading and reviewing those books and picking our own winners. Then, when the official shortlist is announced on May 3rd, we’ll be reading and reviewing those books, too, before having our own virtual judgely huddle and selecting the shadow winner of the Clarke Award, to be announced, in the honourable tradition of most shadow juries, the day before the unveiling of the official winner.

Other awards have shadow juries – the Booker, for one, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, for another. But I can’t think of an sff award that has had a shadow jury before. (And yes, I am aware of the Not-the-Clarke panels at Eastercon, but I’m obviously going to argue that this is a different kind of project.) I did carry out my own informal shadow project on the Clarke Award a few years ago (The Shortlist Project), which was something of an eye-opener. I enjoyed the process on some levels but missed the discussions with other people and didn’t do it again. Which is one reason why I’m so glad to be involved in the Shadow Clarke jury this year. More people to talk to, and such people!

But more seriously, Nina’s initial post raised some important points, I’d like to reiterate here:

To survive and thrive, every branch of literature needs a robust, engaged and diverse critical hinterland. I’ve been concerned for some years that the discussion around science fiction literature in general and the Clarke Award in particular has not been as robust or as challenging as it might be …

I’ve shared Nina’s anxieties for some time, arising from my own reading, and from conversations with Nina herself. But how to articulate that feeling of dis-ease? It’s very easy to jump up and down and shout ‘what was the jury thinking? Was the jury even thinking?’ but that is unfair to each individual Clarke jury. They set their terms anew each year and go about their business as best they can. I’ve been a Clarke judge myself and it is no picnic. I’m sure a lot of people imagine it’s all ‘wow, free books’, but a look at the submissions list will tell you that the jewels are accompanied by a lot of dross – and yes, let’s be blunt about this, dross. This is not unique to the Clarke Award, by any means. I’ve been a Tiptree judge, and witnessed a Campbell Award judge at work; it goes with the territory. But while it’s worth being mindful of the fact that one woman’s dross is another man’s treasure, some dross is just dross …

If there is a problem, with the Clarke and other juried awards, it’s that … actually, there are two problems. One is that the jury’s deliberation is private, and indeed it should be, but as a result we have no access to the debate and can never know what prompted them to make certain decisions. There is probably horse-trading some years, and publishers are not always willing to have their titles submitted if they’re trying to market a book a certain way that is emphatically not science fiction. We don’t know, we can only guess, and it makes things difficult when a book doesn’t appear on a shortlist, and we ask ‘why didn’t they put that on?’ not knowing that the publisher couldn’t or wouldn’t submit. Judges can ask for books but that doesn’t mean they’ll arrive.

But the other problem is that when the shortlists roll out, ‘what were they thinking?’ is a quick and easy response, because it’s really hard to come up with anything else, in the absence of prior debate. And too often this becomes a veiled attack on the competence of the judges, which is not fair on them. They were asked to judge and they did their best in the circumstances. The one thing I will say is that it has seemed to me in recent years that the organisations who nominate judges have tended not to nominate practising critics, which means that one particular approach to sf has been neglected. And that may look like special pleading, but critics have their place in the ecosystem too, alongside the readers.

Which is the other reason I’m glad to be a part of this project: the freedom it affords to have a wide-ranging discussion about the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of science fiction in 2017, and how they pertain to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I can’t speak for anyone else involved, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to test everything I’ve ever thought or felt about science fiction, using the submissions list, and the shortlists (ours and the actual Clarke Award shortlist) as bench marks.

I am a slightly late arrival, as ever, to the introductory posts-party. Nina Allan has already posted about the Shadow Clarke on her own blog, while Paul Kincaid laid out his stall over at Through the Dark Labyrinth. David Hebblethwaite isn’t blogging much at the moment, but he’s posting on Facebook and on Twitter and is well worth following in both those places. Megan AM, known to some of us on Twitter as @couchtomoon, has opted for a classier level of punning, invoking Gene Wolfe, and has posted about her involvement with the Shadow Clarke at her own blog, From Couch to Moon. Megan and I talked about the Clarke Award 2016, with Jonah Sutton-Morse, on his Cabbages and Kings podcast here and here, so I’m particularly pleased to be working with her again on this project. Jonathan McCalmont blogs at Ruthless Culture but hasn’t said anything about the Shadow Clarke there as yet; you can also find him being pithy at @apeinwinter (I said pithy). Victoria Hoyle gives her thoughts on the Shadow Clarke here, with moving pictures and all (but don’t expect that from me as it isn’t going to happen. I have an excellent face for podcasts). And Nick Hubble can be located at @contempislesfic on Twitter. You already know where to find Vajra’s blog but he is also on Twitter at @_vajra

But most important of all, this project is taking place under the auspices of the shiny new Anglia Ruskin Centre for Research into Science Fiction and Fantasy, based in Cambridge, and run by Helen Marshall. This is incredibly exciting, not least because we hope it will bring even more people to the discussion. We’ll be publishing our thoughts there as well as on our blogs, and talking on Twitter (#shadowclarke).

I’ll also try to collate material from the internet about this project on Paper Knife as we go along.

File 770 has already covered the launch of the Shadow Clarke; some of the comments were interesting, especially from people who had never encountered the notion of a shadow jury before. And I utterly refute the Puppy comparisons.

Also, we have no influence whatsoever on the actual Clarke Award, as people have asked. We don’t get to put any titles on the shortlist. I rather hope the Clarke judges will entirely ignore us until it’s all over.

But that’s all for now. The Arthur C. Clarke Award submission list is out later today, so the work will begin in earnest.

Two final thoughts.

Sharkskin is also known as shagreen, and was once used as an abrasive to achieve a fine finish on wood. I’m not quite sure what that means here, but it feels significant.

And lastly, to finish off the verse I quoted at the beginning of this post,

Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear

And he keeps it out of sight.

I mention it only because this is of course Paper Knife.

Reading Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

 

Another Interzone review, this time from late 2015. I’m still sad I didn’t like this novel more.

mcdonald_lunaThe publicity surrounding Luna would have us read it as a gritty species of space opera: The Godfather on the Moon. Ian McDonald is already known for taking others’ ideas and pushing them in new directions, as if to see just how far they can be made to go. In that case, why not take stories from other genres and do the same? The question is what, if anything, does this sidelong hommage bring to the main story? Do we accept it as a literary shorthand to get us beyond the corporate wars of something like Ben Bova’s Grand Tour novels and into a new, more intricately corrupt world. McDonald is quite clear that the battle for the Moon and its resources will be ugly, and a million miles from the utopian cooperation beloved of a certain kind of sf novel. Or should we simply regard it as an opportunity to experience gang wars in space? And if this latter, is there really any point?

McDonald’s Moon is run, inevitably, by five clans, the Five Dragons, under the impotently watchful eye of the Eagle of the Moon (a nod perhaps to the original explorers of the Moon). The peace between them is uneasy, maintained by an elaborate series of dynastic and, unsurprisingly, mostly loveless marriages. Business is all, and everything, including friends and family, is liable to be sacrificed to that. Of the five families, Corta Hélio, headed by the formidable eighty-year-old Adriana Corto, is the brash young kid on the block. Corta’s ambition lifted her out of poverty in Brazil, and brought her to the Moon, where she spotted a business chance and turned it to her advantage. AKA, Mackenzie Metals, VTO and Taiyang have only grudgingly admitted Corta Hélio to their ranks, and only because it is so powerful they can’t afford not to. Lunar high society, reluctantly tight-knit as it is, seems also to be riddled with secret groups, hoping to leverage things to their own advantage. And around them the beautiful people, for whom money is no object, meet and party, while out of sight the workers get on with making more money for them, while paying for the Four Elementals that keep them going: air, water, carbon and data.

McDonald employs the montage technique that has served him well in the past – one thinks inevitably of Desolation Road – but while we may jump from Adriana, contemplating her death and seeking solace in the religious beliefs of her past, to Lucasinho, youngest male scion of the clan, on the run from his repressive father, to Marina Calzaghe, saviour of Rafael Corta after an attempt on his life, to Ariel, the brittle lawyer, only daughter of the clan, none of this seems to move the novel forward significantly. The more interesting parts of the narrative dwell in the glimpses of those elements of family life that are avoided in polite conversation, and which are of course precisely those places the reader wants to go.

We are also directed to admire the staggering diversity of nationalities and beliefs which intermingle and form lunar society, not to mention the ever-so-slightly too casual presentation of same-sex relationships, as well as bisexual and gender-neutral characters, but the fact of their being so very front and centre in the novel suggests discomfort rather than casual acceptance of them as the norm. In truth, it’s difficult to find a reason to care about the Corta children and their business, perhaps because rich people being rich, and worrying about remaining rich, just aren’t that interesting. Adriana’s autobiography, her final confession to Irma Loa, a Sister of the Lords of Now, is the meatiest, and maybe most traditional part of the story, but it’s not enough on its own to sustain the novel. We might wonder about Lucasinho’s charming but incomprehensible interest in baking cakes, or be drawn, as Marina is, to the discovery of the perpetual run taking place in the tunnels of João de Deus, as much a spiritual as a physical exercise. We certainly crave to know more about Wagner, the moonwolf, the Corta outsider. All these are elements of the Ian McDonald whose work I love for its verve and daring, but they remain underexplored, somehow constrained by the form and setting that he’s chosen for this novel. Adam Roberts noted that Luna has much in common with the soap opera Dallas, and this is true, but I think also of The Great Gatsby, and of Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clear up the mess they had made’. They have much in common with most of the Corta family.

A month of things read, things watched – January 2017

It’s hard to think straight at the moment, given I seem to be living in every pessimistic sf novel I’ve ever read.  The nightmares of my teens and twenties have all come true in the last ten days and writing this seems excessively indulgent when other things need to be attended to. At the same time, I remind myself that I do all the other things in order to carry on doing this, so it would be pointless to stop now.

So, here’s a round-up of things I read and watched in January 2017.

Books:

black-and-britishDavid Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) is linked to the recent BBC series of the same name. It’s a good basic introduction to the history of black people in the UK, if you’re new to the subject: my historical interests in the last few years have been such that I already knew something about most of the pre-20th century material (and quite a lot about Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson’s anti-slavery work – I recommend Adam Hochschild’s Bury These Chains, if you want to read more), though there was enough new detail to keep me interested. I was less familiar with the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century and post-war material so that took up most of my attention. The book did show some signs of being published in a hurry – there are more editorial mistakes than I thought seemly – but it does have a decent critical apparatus. It also reminded me to buy Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which I’ve been intending to read since forever.

the-ash-treeI’m nothing if not eclectic in my reading (actually, I’m not – it’s pretty much equal parts history, various kinds of nature writing, fiction – predominantly science fiction and fantasy, and criticism these days) so next is Oliver Rackham’s The Ash Tree (2015) one of the Little Toller Monograph series. I find these to be something of a mixed bag (Iain Sinclair’s The Black Apples of Gower was entertaining, though possibly not for any reason he intended; my favourite by far is Adam Thirlwell’s On Silbury Hill). I was eager to read this because, well, I like ash trees, but the book felt rather leaden and dully fact-heavy until, towards the end, Rackham started taking a pop at various authorities over the ash dieback crisis.

wolf-borderSarah Hall’s The Wolf Border turned out be less than I was expecting, after a promising start.  I was hoping for something a bit more wolfish than I ended up with. I did not expect to get what is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary version of the Gothic romance of the 1970s. Hated them then, really don’t like them now, even with a fresh spin. All the really interesting stuff was going on in the novel’s interstices, where we and the protagonist could only glimpse it. As a novel about national identity, it seemed have a lot to say about pregnancy. Exquisitely written, exquisitely frustrating.

weird-and-eerieI was only dimly aware of the existence of Mark Fisher as a writer, and it took his death to draw my attention to his last book, The Weird and the Eerie, which came out last year. I’ll not say much about it now as I’m planning to reread it and write about it, but I will note that I did not expect to read a piece of work published in 2016 that was so white and so male in its critical approach. Only three texts by women were discussed, and a lot of the material discussed was old. The section on Alan Garner focused on ElidorThe Owl Service and Red Shift, as though Strandloper,  Thursbitch and Boneland, all equally pertinent to the discussion, had never been written. I’m also not sure whether Fisher realised that Yvonne Rousseau’s Murder at Hanging Rock (which he discusses in the section on Picnic at Hanging Rock, bu unforgiveably does not mention in the bibliography) was intended as spoof scholarship. And yet, there was much about the basic critical thesis that I found very useful, hence much of my irritation with the text.

loveLast but not least, I read Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology, edited by Hope Nicolson. I’ve a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons so I’ll link to that when it appears.

 

 

 

 

Chiang.jpgI also read (possibly reread) Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Lives as I was going to see Arrival and wanted to read ‘Story of Your Life’. Ted Chiang is an excellent writer of a particular kind of sf that I happen to like, so job done.

 

 

 

book-cover-green-knowe Other rereads were Alison Uttley’s The Country Child and A Traveller in Time, and Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe. I’ve never much cared for A Country Child as a story, but see now that’s because it isn’t, not really. To my adult eyes, the descriptions of landscape and country ways are beautifully done; Susan Garland remains annoyingly priggish. For that kind of thing I would rather read Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.

 

 

Films/TV:

We went to see both Arrival and Rogue One, both very well done. I’ve already written about Arrival  so I won’t repeat myself here. Rogue One is, in many respects, everything I missed from The Force Awakens. Diverse cast, women flying X-fighters, enough nods to the original without being overwhelmingly cloying and sentimental in its fan service, funny, sarcastic, genuinely tragic, bizarrely life-affirming. This is my favourite Star Wars film.

We also went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Tempest. The general view seems to be that the special effects probably work better if you’re in the theatre; they do not come over well on broadcast relay. (N.B., for anyone who has ever asked me what it’s like to have no depth perception without glasses, if you saw this play as a relay broadcast, now you know.)

Much as I have always loved Simon Russell Beale as an actor, I’m forced to the conclusion, reluctantly, that he now does Simon Russell Beale in a play rather than the character he’s playing. His Prospero was … okay, better than his god-awful Lear and the so-so Timon for the Royal National Theatre, but I’d been expecting more and I did not get it. Ariel and Caliban were far better, and that set me thinking about them as physical embodiments of the two aspects of Prospero’s character. Miranda was also rather gutsier than I’m used to, which is good, and Ferdinand was wet, as usual.

I’ve written about watching the BBC productions of The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time on DVDChildren has fared well over the years, Traveller not so much. I’m glad to have the DVD but the production has entirely lost its magic for me.

I’ve also just finished catching up on the BBC’s fourth series of Father Brown, which I continue to regard as alternative history, in a Britain where the Reformation never happened. The series bible now seems to be firmly stuck around about August 1953, though the background culture is quite clearly changing constantly. I’ve been struck in this series by the sudden influx of actors of colour, and not all of them playing villains, for a wonder. The only way to cope with the series is to entirely forget about G.K. Chesterton and think of it as Midsomer Murders in the Cotswolds, with a Catholic priest, though the last episode of the series featured John Light’s disturbing Sexy!Flambeau. The writers of this episode seemed to have some slight understanding of the complexities of the relationship between Flambeau and Father Brown, for a wonder, and it was rather enjoyable in its own funny, fuzzy way. There must surely be a spin-off series called Flambeau! any moment now.

Gene Mapper by Taiyo Fujii

This review first appeared in Interzone 260 in 2015. I didn’t like the book very much, unfortunately.

Gene Mapper – Taiyo Fujii, trans. Jim Hubbert.

Haikasoru, 297pp

Translation is not a cheap business. Which makes me curious as to why Haikasoru thought it worth translating Gene Mapper for the English-language market when, to me at least, it doesn’t really seem to be that good. The answer may lie somewhere in the novel’s slightly confusing genesis: Fujii originally published a version of Gene Mapper as an e-book and it sold 10,000 copies. At this point Hayakawa Publishing, well-known as a publisher of science fiction in Japan, apparently contacted Fujii and asked for what one newspaper has described as ‘a full-length novel’, suggesting that the original version was probably rather shorter. Subsequently, Orbital Cloud, Fujii’s second novel, not yet available in English, won the 2014 Japan SF Grand Prize.

Here, I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. So far as I am aware, I have read no Japanese science fiction in translation, so I have no idea if Gene Mapper is typical of Japanese sf or whether the problems I have with it arise simply from Fujii’s being an inexperienced writer. I incline to the latter, and Fujii himself freely admits that he later signed up with a traditional publisher to benefit from editorial advice, so this review is conducted on that basis.

Mamoru Hayashida, the narrator of this story, is a gene mapper: that is, he is a designer programming the DNA of rice crops. The story is set in 2036 and crops are being ‘distilled’ from scratch in order to combat world hunger. My first difficulty arises here – it is remarkably difficult to get a sense of what it is Hayashida actually does. Whether this is because it is incredibly complicated or because Hayashida can’t properly explain it isn’t clear. Which is curious because, if there is one thing that Hayashida likes doing, it is explaining. His narrative is one long explanation of everything he sees, does, and uses (especially when it comes to software and augmented reality) to the point where the novel seems more like a speculative description of the future with a few shreds of  plot gathered around it for modesty’s sake than it does a full-blown novel. It does, though, make the failure to explain what Hayashida does seem far more obvious than it otherwise might have been.

Which suggests to me that Fujii himself is much more interested in showing how Hayashida and his colleagues use augmented reality than he is in telling the story. And indeed, in that newspaper interview, Fujii observes that ‘a world with augmented reality is a better place to live’, in which case it  would make sense to show how AR might work for someone living in the future.

But this is my second problem: Fujii’s fascination with the trappings of the future threaten to overwhelm the actual plot, what there is of it. It flickers fitfully, like the light from the jellyfish genes that will become significant as things progress. It is a simple enough story. Even in 2036 environmental activists are eager to put a stop to artificially produced crops, though in this instance they appear to have adopted bizarre measures to do so. It is up to Hayashida to figure out what is happening before his company’s credibility is destroyed. This involves Hayashida travelling in person to the site, along with his colleague, the mysterious Takashi Kurokawa, headhunting a number of hacker types to help with research, and then, right on cue, being handed most of the answers on a virtual plate. We have, so to speak, been here before, many times.

Nonetheless, there is a certain attractive quality to Fujii’s main characters. Dialogue is not among Fujii’s core skills as a writer but every now and then something sparks on the page. Hayashida’s relationship with Kurokawa, his putative mentor, is oddly charming, while his growing relationship with Shue Thep, the researcher overseeing the rice-growing project, is expressed in conversations that actually feel convincing, not least when she’s complaining about a lack of equipment. The villains of the piece, however, look and sound like stock villains throughout. We realise quickly that Hayashida and his friends are unlikely to come to any notable harm as they try to solve the mystery at hand.

Given that Fujii’s primary interest lies in the way humans interface with technology, I hope he will in future address those issues more directly in his work and give his readers something richer to deal with, rather than simply bolting a flimsy plot onto lavish descriptions using AR in the workplace. That Fujii recognises the need for editorial advice and guidance seems to me to be a positive thing. Nonetheless, it is a shame that our first encounter with his writing must be with something that still seems strangely unfinished.

The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time – a tale of two novels

Among other Christmas presents I received the DVDs of The Children of Green Knowe (1986, from the novel by Lucy M. Boston [1954]) and A Traveller in Time (1978, from the novel by Alison Uttley [1939]). The two novels have been favourites of mine since I was young and I remember enjoying both adaptations immensely when they were first shown. I’ve seen Children a number of times over the years, thanks to a video transfer available on YouTube, but Traveller only finally came out on DVD in late 2015. The BBC never repeated it after its initial airing and I had been longing to see it again.

The short version of this is going to be that the tv adaptation of Children has lasted far better than the adaptation of Traveller, in part for technical reasons, in part because the adaptation of Traveller manages to highlight all of the novel’s weaknesses and none of its virtues. There is only ten years between the two tv adaptations but technically a lot apparently happened in that ten years. The Children of Green Knowe looks as fresh as ever; it’s very difficult to believe that it is thirty years old. A Traveller in Time, only eight years older, looks visually awful; in parts it seems terribly bleached, and there is occasional interference visible on the screen. This was very much a quick and dirty transfer to DVD, with very little in the way of titivation. The shifts between indoor studio scenes and outdoor scenes are often extremely awkward, and the painted backdrops of ‘outdoors’ seen through doors are quite obviously artificial. The soundtrack is also very fuzzy at times (though the poor choice of a very over-ripe orchestral version of Greensleeves as the theme tune is another matter altogether). It’s made even more awkward by a decision to update the story, moving it into ‘the present’, a decision which provided some unexpected visual distractions that I’ll return to.

book-cover-green-knoweBefore I deliver a more detailed verdict on both adaptations, I’d like to step back slightly and look at the novels again. The Children of Green Knowe, I’ve written about before, but not A Traveller in Time, though I know I’ve mentioned it in various places at various times. Oddly, what hadn’t struck me before my Christmas viewing was how similar in some ways the two novels are. Each concerns a child moving effortlessly, inexplicably, through time, becoming somehow caught up in the stories of the people they meet, in the history of the house, and also having to face up to the deaths, long since, of the people they have encountered. I tend to call these novels ‘ghost stories’ simply because that’s what I’ve always called them, but the very title of A Traveller in Time indicates it should be thought of as a story of time-slippage, though the situation in The Children of Green Knowe is made a little complicated by the awareness of the seventeenth-century Oldknow children that they are dead. Here, it is not Tolly who moves through time so much as the other children who fade in an out of Tolly’s own time.

traveller-in-time-coverAnd in each novel, the house – Green Knowe and Thackers – stands as a character (each fictional house has an actual counterpart – Hemingford Grey manor house, owned by Boston herself, and Dethick Manor farmhouse, originally owned by the Babington family, and known to Uttley in her childhood); each house is dominated by a woman, Mrs Oldknow, and Tissie/Dame Cicely Taberner, respectively, who functions as the genius loci of the place, and possibly bears some slight resemblance to an idealised version of the author in each instance. Beyond that, it would also be not unreasonable to say that Boston and Uttley themselves had a certain amount in common, given that they both seem to have had rather challenging personalities.

Both novels begin with a decision made to send the child protagonists away to the country. In Green Knowe, Toseland, or Tolly, is to spend Christmas with a great-grandmother he didn’t know he had, rather than languish at the rather dull boarding school where he normally lives, his parents being in Burma; in A Traveller in Time, the three Cameron children but Penelope in particular, have been unwell, and their mother decides to send them to an aunt in Derbyshire, to recuperate. So the first major event in each novel involves a train journey, with the protagonists moving away from all that is familiar, heading deep into the uncertainty of the countryside. Both train journeys present us with a picture of close-knit community; in both cases, the children are identified by other passengers as not being from around here, and in neither case is there a clear sense that they belong although they have a loose family connection to the area. Tolly’s first name, Toseland, is recognised as a local place-name but oddly, despite the family being known locally, there seems to be no awareness that Toseland is also a family forename. For all that he has lived in the interim setting of a boarding school (and possibly abroad himself) we are to understand Tolly Oldknow as returning to his house. Boston specifically frames his arrival as a return, and has Tolly anxiously ask if the house is partly his. Penelope’s attachment to Derbyshire is indicated first by her middle name, Taberner; it is her mother’s maiden name, and the family name of the aunt and uncle, brother and sister, with whom they will be staying. Penelope, we will also discover, is also a Taberner family name, so Penelope’s attachment is doubly emphasised by her naming. Her family name, though, is Cameron – her mother married a Scot, and I think by this we are supposed to see Penelope as both belonging but being somewhat ‘other’ too, in that a part of her belongs even further north.

So, in part, you could say that both novels are about strengthening that connection to a family place by involving the protagonists in the history of the houses they are staying in, houses which are, if you like, also ‘family’. The treatment of the two houses mark the first major point of divergence between the two stories, a divergence which I think makes The Children of Green Knowe the more successful of the two novels as a story. Boston provides Hemingford Grey/Green Knowe with a mostly fictional history, filling in what might have been lost along the way, but begins from a point of utter familiarity with the house itself (unsurprising given she bought it pretty much as a wreck and then restored it). Uttley never actually lived at Dethick/Thackers, although as a child she played with the child who did live there, and this only partial familiarity does show. The descriptions of the house are doubtless accurate but there is always the slight sense that they come from an outsider. I can’t help feeling that Uttley rather badly wanted to have lived at Dethick – I find it more than a little suggestive that when she bought a house in Beaconsfield from her royalties, she called it Thackers, although it was about as unlike Thackers or Dethick as one might possibly imagine – and that A Traveller in Time was, if you like, her attempt to write herself, as Penelope, into that history. There is an obsession with the house as artefact that isn’t present in Children in the same way. And while Tolly doesn’t have to claim his family history because it comes to him, in Traveller Penelope’s real fascination is with the Babingtons rather than her own Taberner family. (The question that is never posed is how, if this is the Babingtons’ house, does it come to belong to the Taberners now. The implication is that they reside there now as stewards of the Babington history, but a few uncomfortable questions are elided.)

The tv adaptation of Children was mostly filmed at Hemingford Grey; even if one didn’t know that one would feel a ‘rightness’ about the adaptation’s setting, inside and out, in a way that just isn’t there with the adaptation of Traveller. My sense is that the interior shots are mostly studio-based, simply because of the enormous amount of room available for the actors and crew to move around in, not forgetting those unconvincing outdoor backdrops glimpsed through open doors. Having said that, the shots of the modern-day farm interior, the kitchen at least, seem to have been filmed on location, which makes the juxtaposition all the more uncomfortable.

The second major difference between the two novels lies in the protagonists themselves. In Green Knowe, Tolly is seven years old. Alec Christie was twelve when he played Tolly in the tv series, and I’d place the character he played as being about nine or ten. Either way, in both novel and series, he is a very active child, exploring, investigating, asking questions, eager for encounters with the other children living in the house, eager for stories about them. As Mrs Oldknow comments, he’s ready for anything. He is, if you like, coming into his birthright, finding out who and what he is. He might start as an outsider but he is very quickly subsumed into the house and his history.

greenknowetolly

The central theme of the novel is celebratory restoration. Tolly’s arrival at Green Knowe sets in train a process of rejuvenation. While his great-grandmother is aware of the existence of the children it is Tolly’s open desire to engage with the children, not to mention his hunger for stories about them, that initiates a series of discoveries – the key to the children’s toy chest, Linnet’s bracelet previously lost in the shrubbery – as well as a series of curious experiences, such as the encounter with Toby’s horse, Feste, and, at last, the lifting of the curse laid on the topiary man, Green Noah, by the mother of the gipsy horse thief. We might suppose that the encounters with the children are simply the imaginings of a very lonely little boy stuck with an elderly relation, except that Mrs Oldknow matter-of-factly confirms his experiences. She might be humouring him, of course, except that Boggis, as much a genius loci as Mrs Oldknow, also knows all the stories, and can add one or two of his own. By doing so, either Boggis is engaged in some sort of unholy conspiracy with Mrs Oldknow, or he acts as a confirming second party. This is all very real if you are part of the family, and Boggises have been associated with the house probably for as long as Oldknows. For the most part the novel is remarkably unthreatening. Tolly is being inducted into the history of his family, and the house where it lives, the house that by implication will one day be his. The Children of Green Knowe is an introduction to his inheritance, tangible and intangible.

By contrast, A Traveller in Time is an account of that which has been lost and can never be regained. It begins as nostalgia – Penelope is clearly writing as an adult, describing childhood experiences; among others, she notes how, when offered a treat, she chose to rummage through the old things in a family chest – but somehow ends as mourning the loss of old ways. We are, I think, supposed to see Penelope as being a little old-fashioned even in her own time. But if Tolly is part of the presiding family in his house, Penelope Taberner Cameron is very different. She is much more passive, an observer but not a participant, and I think this is in part because she is a Boggis rather than an Oldknow, so to speak. Aunt Tissie is aware of the continuing presence of the Babingtons at Thackers – ‘the secret of Thackers’ – but this is something that is not discussed. And, of course, the job of Taberners is to keep secrets. As a Taberner, Penelope can never be a participant, only a guardian. The novel may try to account for this by representing her as a sickly, solitary child, as ‘fey, but the fact is that the linear inevitability of history precludes her doing anything other than witness the beginning of the downfall of the Babington family. She can tell Francis (and in the novel, Anthony) what is going to happen but insofar as either of them believes her, neither of them can do anything to prevent it happening. And this is the biggest problem with the novel as novel. Even though Penelope is ‘family’, she must remain an outsider, because she is a Taberner and not a Babington. The history being played out before her is not her history, although her family has witnessed it and participated in it.

dressinggown

One of the enduring difficulties of the novel is how to account for Penelope’s presence at Thackers, how to excuse her comings and going, her strange clothes, the fact that unlike most girls of that time, she can read and write, but that unlike her aunt, she has not the remotest idea how to do anything practical, such as identifying herbs. Her position at Thackers is constructed in such a way that she is constantly privileged and her odd behaviour excused; she rides out with Francis Babington, waits on his mother and step-grandmother, but works in the kitchen too. And to round this off, Francis falls in love with her, and she with him. It is the perfect teenage relationship.

gipps-kent

This is not to say that A Traveller in Time does not have a story but it always comes back to what cannot be done. Anthony has lost his heart to Mary, Queen of Scots, and is plotting to rescue her while she is at Wingfield. An old tunnel between Wingfield and Thackers is to be reopened and the Queen is to be brought along it to Thackers and hence onward to freedom. The plot, though, will be discovered, though at this stage Babington will not be implicated, and a handy fall of snow will conceal the digging at Thackers. But while this may be the story, it is not the plot, not least because Penelope already knows what will happen. There is a sub-plot in the novel, when Arabella, the Babingtons’ jealous cousin, suspecting Penelope of being a spy, imprisons her underground in an abandoned tunnel, from which she is rescued by Jude, the mute farm boy. He is believed to be ‘touched’ but seems to be more fully aware of Penelope’s nature than everyone else. But even this sub-plot only comes to the fore quite late in the novel and while it is given more prominence in the adaptation (complete with Arabella roasting the wax figure of Penelope that she’s made), it’s not really what the novel is all about.

According to Denis Judd’s biography of Alison Uttley, Alison Uttley: Spinner of Tales, the novel was originally rejected by her publisher and had to be reworked, though he provides no detail as to what this involved. He does, though refer to Uttley describing it as the ‘darling of my heart’, and sees Uttley as having written herself into the novel as Penelope, unsurprisingly. However, he seems to regard the novel as being rather more successful in its construction than I do. If Alison Uttley does have one great theme as a writer, it is her childhood in rural Derbyshire, at Castle Top Farm. Her love of the countryside, and of rural ways, is reflected in much of her output, from The Country Child (1931), through the myriad Little Grey Rabbit books, to A Traveller in Time. By far the most successful parts of the novel are the descriptions of country life – if we assume that the novel is originally set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, or maybe even earlier given that the voice of Penelope Taberner Cameron is that of an adult or near-adult, recalling a time when she was a child, we can assume that Uttley is drawing on her memories of her own childhood. Indeed, a comparison with The Country Child show that many of the scenes, customs and events described in that resurface in A Traveller in Time, where they are often used to establish a continuity between the Elizabethan period and the novel’s present day. By far the best passages in The Country Child, which is anyway fictionalised autobiography, are the descriptions of farm life and the evocations of the natural world, the things that Uttley knew well, and the same is true in A Traveller in Time as Uttley’s instincts as a storyteller override her attempt to tell a different story.

The disparity between the two stories is reflected in the two tv adaptations. Although both stay close to the original novels, A Traveller in Time has inevitably been abbreviated to remove the long, lingering descriptions of farm life, meaning that there is very little meat for the adaptor to work with. The adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe is visually gorgeous (perhaps unsurprisingly, given most of it seems to have been filmed at Hemingford Grey). The opening sequence, as Tolly travels deeper into a flooded landscape, swapping train for taxi, taxi for the taxi-driver’s back (reminding us of St Christopher, who plays an important part later in the story) and then piggyback for Boggis’s boat is utterly magical. And that is the point. This is supposed to be a magical story and the adaptation captures that. Which is not to say that it is not at times remarkably atmospheric, and sometimes a little scary. The sequence where Tolly sits on a book so that Linnet cannot read it and she invisibly drags it across the floor is disturbingly effective, as is Tolly’s ill-fated trip across the garden in the dark, when Green Knowe is walking, though for my money, the best, most unnerving sequence is when Tolly is wandering around the upper storey of the stables, searching for the children he can always hear in the next room but can never quite locate. In odd places it also visually reminds me of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘Lost Hearts’ (1973), when young Stephen (coincidentally played by Simon Gipps-Kent) is wandering in the grounds of Aswarby Hall and hears children’s voices.

Strangely enough, A Traveller in Time also reminds me strongly of ‘Lost Hearts’, and that’s probably a lot less of a coincidence given that there is only five years between the two. While the novel seems to be warm and sunny, the tv version is bleak, misty, grey, and altogether lacking in joy. I’m not sure where they filmed the outdoor shots but they seem to have gone looking for the most unprepossessing fields they could manage, while the railway station was not exactly a gateway to adventure. Even the shots purportedly in the farmhouse garden look less than magical, and the shots of Wingfield are grim in the extreme. One can only assume that the programme makers were in some way trying to emulate Gordon Clark, even though it was utterly inappropriate to the story. There was indeed one sequence when Penelope was riding with her uncle in the land rover and looked out to see Jude scaring birds in the field which might as well have come from ‘Lost Hearts’. I suppose all this might be argued as tying in with the rather more furtive nature of Penelope’s experience but it seemed to be a strange artistic decision.

I noted earlier that the story had been updated for a modern audience, although the visual clues were maddeningly vague at times. Mostly, one had to rely on what Penelope was wearing as a guide, given the farm, the farm vehicles, and the Taberners themselves were of course behind the times. And here is the problem. In the original story, set maybe in the 1920s or early 1930s, Penelope would be dressed in clothes which, if outlandish by Elizabethan standards, could at least be excused as ‘London fashion’. 1970s Penelope by comparison would one moment be in jeans, boots and a smock top like any normal teenager of that time, and the next wearing something oddly formal or out of time, because of course she was about to move back in time. There was a quilted dressing-gown which was very frequently brought into play because it could pass muster as some sort of over-dress that wasn’t too un-Elizabethan. Also, a cloak that no self-respecting teenager of that period would have been seen dead in.

In conclusion, I have to admit that despite my fond recollections of it, I am disappointed in the tv version of A Traveller in Time. I’m glad to have seen it again, and to have it to hand for reference, but the novel, for all its faults, wins hands down. The series is awkwardly put together, emphasising the novel’s flaws, and just can’t seem to find a story for itself. I wonder now if the production team was struggling to present it as a softer version of the old ghost stories, but simply couldn’t find the right register for it. By contrast, the tv adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe, despite its own occasional moments of clunkiness (we’ll draw a veil over the business of the walking tree) is joyful and magical, capturing the spirit of the novel very effectively. It’s a lovely thing to look at. Watching it will, I think, become a Christmas tradition, rather like rewatching The Box of Delights. There is the same sense of craftsmanship about it.

‘Recordings alone aren’t sufficient’ – speaking Arrival

As is customary at Paper Knife, I will be discussing the whole of the story, the whole of the film. If you want them both to be a lovely surprise when you get to them, I suggest you click away now. In the meantime, let us continue.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Before all else, I want to say that I enjoyed Arrival immensely. Indeed it acted so powerfully on my imagination that I dreamt a whole sub-plot for it the night I saw it, something to do with people discovering things about past situations they’d found themselves in, information that would have been helpful at the time, and now vouchsafed to them because they’d at last slipped free of the constraints of time and language.

Will Elwood wondered on Twitter whether Arrival really is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, which is an interesting point, not least because my first thought, having read the story just before I saw the film, was how do you adapt a story like this, so heavily reliant on shifts in time and narrative tense, into a film? After the film, Paul Kincaid and I initially thought that Arrival could be seen as an improvisation on ‘Story of Your Life, but thinking about it some more, I wonder now if it isn’t perhaps a commentary on the difference between telling a story with words and telling a story with images. To which you would pityingly say, ‘well, obviously, because it’s a film, right?’ And it is, and you are right, but what I’m thinking about is the different ways in which words and images (sounds, too) evoke thoughts in the mind.

I have said before that I am generally not that keen on film or tv; in part this is because I don’t like the way film-makers attempt, sometimes very crudely, to manipulate my emotions. Obviously, writers do this too, but I’ve always felt that words are something I have control over – I can stop reading if it all gets too stressful – whereas images I don’t – I cannot pause the cinema film. Images are just there, projected into my mind, something I find much more difficult to filter out unless I close my eyes and stuff my fingers in my ears.

‘Story of Your Life’ and Arrival tell the same story, more or less. Odd details change – Gary Donnelly becomes Ian Donnelly, Hannah’s cause of death will be different, but essentially, the stories remain the same. It’s the emphases that are different.

One of the several reasons why I like Ted Chiang’s stories is that while they contain much in the way of ideas, on the page they are very pared down. He gives me as much as I need and no more. He is not a writer who indulges in lush description unless for a very specific reason, and if he does, I would take notice, because. Mostly, he leaves it to me, the reader, to bring my own imagination to bear, as much as I need it to, in order to fill in the gaps between the words and the sentences. I don’t want or need it on the page. It doesn’t seem like promising material for a film.

One could imagine a film-maker looking at ‘Story of Your Life’ as nothing more than a synopsis, an opportunity for the special effects department to run riot, and I don’t doubt we could think of directors who would have done just that, allowing spectacle to overwhelm all else. But, for the most part, that didn’t happen here. At the heart of ‘Story of Your Life’ is an achronological, universal language, in which everything is said simultaneously, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things Arrival is trying to do is to explore how the film image tries to be everything simultaneously, but how the experience can differ, according to what visual memory you bring to it. OK, so this is hardly original, but too often it seems to me that locating the intertextual references in film turns into an easter-egg hunt. How smug we all feel for spotting the shop called Micklewhite’s in the Muppet Christmas Carol, knowing that Michael Caine was originally called Maurice Micklewhite. That’s an in-joke, not an intertextual reference; it’s also an artefact, and I’m thinking much more about mood.

Let’s take a few examples from Arrival, some more overt than others. If Arrival is in direct dialogue with any film, it is surely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I must admit I also read it in part as a riposte to or subtle reproof of some aspects of CETK, particularly the Special Edition. To begin with, while the huge space ships have shown up all over the world, the film focuses on one that has taken up station in Montana, which I do not doubt is meant to prompt us to think of the Devi’s Tower in Wyoming, the dominant image in CETK. But I’m thinking more of the moment when the helicopter sweeps over Louise Banks’ house at night, before landing in the meadow. The slanting light through the slats of the blinds, the confusion of dark and light, the distortion, the figure at the door, all echo the events when Barry is taken from his mother’s house. And are meant to – the audience is anticipating what Banks is likely to find when she opens the door, and there is the sense of relief that it’s Colonel Weber (though anyone who recalls E.T. might perhaps wonder whether authority figures should be trusted).

The shots of the house by the waterside, the child playing at the water’s edge, and the way the water moved, all made me think immediately of Solaris (and as Andrew M. Butler pointed out after the film, there is also the shot of the wheat field moving in the breeze). The reference to ‘the zone’ can’t help but invoke Stalker, but what about the quality of the stillness of the vast ship, hanging in the air. I thought then of District Nine. And surely everyone who has seen Arrival had at least one moment when they thought of 2001 and the monolith. I doubt any of this is a coincidence, any more than it is a coincidence that every film I’ve mentioned here is very specifically about attempting, or failing, to communicate with an alien group in ways that don’t simply involve trying to shoot them out of the sky.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that Villeneuve is very specifically offering a bank of references for the watcher to draw on if they so desire, his version of leaving spaces between the words. Because, one of the things that does strike me about this film is how comparatively sparse everything is on the screen. Not the space ship, perhaps, but we’ll come back to that shortly. It is as if Villeneuve has striven to put the minimum necessary on screen to actually tell the story. We see unremarkable public spaces that are in no way distinctive (the campus, the garage); they could be anywhere. Contingent spaces, like the cafeteria, could again be anywhere, and the people in them could be anywhere as well. Banks’ own house is more distinctive, but what we note mostly is how isolated it is, how impersonal, how see-through. The army camp is inevitably marked as temporary – we see it put up, and taken down. We see a hundred little reminders – in the furniture, fittings, cramped accommodation, banks of phones for the soldiers to call home – that this is not a place where people will settle. The room where Banks sleeps is small, functional, a place to lie down but not to be comfortable. The only space we ever see that actually seems to belong to someone is Banks’ study, with its book-lined walls; this is where she spends most of her time, and it’s the place she goes back to while everyone else is wondering how to deal with potential alien invasion. (It’s noticeable too that the lecture theatre is the only other place that seems in any way ‘warm’. It’s bigger than her study but it’s still a cocoon; she is prepared to keep on lecturing in the face of the arrival of aliens, no matter how few people attend.)

In all of this it seems to me that Villeneuve is giving us what we need, but no more, unless we want to bring it in ourselves. It’s the visual equivalent of saying ‘Banks’ office’ or ‘the army camp’. The camera rarely lingers; it’s always scurrying along behind Banks, on her way to somewhere else, taking no notice of her surroundings, because they do not interest her. We only really notice the surroundings when, in Montana, Ian is also present, or when Banks is with Hannah. These are the things that are important to the story. Perhaps we might see them as a visual equivalent of the passages in the story that are directly addressed to her daughter. The richer settings reflect engagement, affection.

Earlier, I excluded the space ship from my discussion on the minimalism of the settings. In Chiang’s story, the ships are simply referred to as ‘the ships’. Indeed, they’re really not important to the story except as vehicles to bring the heptapods to Earth. What’s really important are the alien devices, deposited on the ground. They’re called ‘looking glasses’ and described as being ‘semicircular […] over ten feet high and twenty feet across’. Later, it will turn out they’re made of fused silica, nothing exotic. Chiang’s description renders them as being nothing fancy, and I think that’s the point. You could imagine one, on a smaller scale, as a mirror over a mantelpiece in an ordinary house. It’s just that these are bigger.

The story doesn’t need a space ship; it’s taken as read, but the film? Well, maybe it panders to a section of the audience by including an actual space ship, but I wonder too if a twenty-foot mirror isn’t harder to explain than a space ship. And here the space ship can be used to tell us something about its inhabitants as well. What I particularly love about the space ship is its texture, which will echo, to some extent, the texture of the heptapod when we finally see it in detail. (Paul Kincaid thinks this is as part of a dream sequence; I am not so sure of that, but even if it is, the texture has clearly imprinted itself on Banks’ dream consciousness as well.) I like too how the curvilinear form resonates slightly with that curved-mirror artefact that Chiang describes. And also, and maybe this is my imagination, when it finally turns in the sky, I couldn’t help thinking of a contact lens, a huge, grey contact lens, but something else that says ‘seeing’ rather than hearing, and again picks up on something that is present in both story and film, the dichotomy between speaking and writing, and the need to utilise both in order to make contact. I could get all Derridean about this and start invoking ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ – maybe at some point, when I’ve refreshed my memory, I will – but for now I will simply draw your attention to Colonel Weber’s impossible demand that Banks translate the alien speech from a tape recording, with no other clues at all.

Here I should back up slightly – the reference to the mirror in Chiang’s text suggests faces; something that is very noticeable in the film is the emphasis on faces. We see often them very close to, closer than I think is always necessary. Paul Kincaid notes in his own post on the film how often the film focuses on Banks’ face at certain points, but there are instances of it with other characters, and it occurred to me that these moments we are being urged, literally directed, to take note of those expressions. Why? It could be frantic telegraphing of points, yes, but I don’t think so; this film is too good for that kind of cheap manipulation. Instead, it seemed to me that Villeneuve was quietly suggesting that not only should we not be relying on words alone when it came to communicating, we can’t.

The facial thing struck me in particular because I experience tinnitus and deafness in one ear, and it turns out that I’ve been compensating for this for years by lip-reading; I really don’t like it when I can’t see the lower portion of people’s faces when they’re speaking, and that includes in films. What brought it home to me in Arrival is the scene when they first enter the space ship in hazmat gear and attempt to communicate with the aliens. It was screamingly obvious from the beginning that at least some of the team would have to eventually divest themselves of the gear in order to communicate properly, but while one might think of this in terms of showing oneself as a ‘human’, and what a human actually looks like, it is also about revealing the face, the place where communication starts with humans. Similarly, when Banks lays her hand on the screen, it’s tempting to imagine the heptapods thinking, ‘okay, now we can talk’ because she has, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledged their means of communication.

But, of course, this also links back to Colonel Weber’s inability to ‘see’ that communication isn’t simply about words, or recordings, but about bodies, faces, presences, positioning. And as it turns out, vocalisation is not actually the heptapods’ primary means of communication. In Chiang’s story, which is made of words, the emphasis is on figuring out what the heptapods are saying and what this means; by contrast, I’d say that the film is more about how they figure it out, inevitably, because it is a very visual thing. In the story, the heptapods’ writing is described first as ‘a doodle of script, vaguely cursive’; later, as they learn more, it becomes like ‘fancilful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance’. Later, as Banks begins to appreciate the full significance of the heptapods’ written language she talks in terms of calligraphic designs, while noting that ‘No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no one human could.’ And this, to my mind, is one place where the film does something the story never can – it can attempt to represent the semagrams, shown as ink coalescing in liquid, in black and white literally. The designers have opted for circular forms, with complexes of strands branching off all over the place, as if emphasising the conceptual all-at-onceness of heptapod communication. Chiang’s story has scientific diagrams, but it doesn’t, and I think can’t, ever have anything quite like this, because words don’t work like that (as I am inevitably showing here).

And there is one thing I haven’t yet raised –how much of this film is about a lack of communication. Inevitably, perhaps. It would be impossible to resist in a film about first contact, but Villeneuve is as subtle about that. Yes, later, we get the inevitable great big diplomatic tantrums, and threats of war, and it would be wrong perhaps to exclude them, in the same way that we know the military is going to attempt to function on a need-to-know basis, and close down discussion when it most needs to happen – there is something inevitably perverse about the way in which the US military always seems to try to control the flow of information in any given situation while apparently being staggeringly inept at achieving any kind of meaningful exchange. I’m sure that is a point not lost on Villeneuve.

But think back to the beginning, after we’ve seen the death of Hannah, at the point where we might still be thinking that Banks is grieving. By the end of the film, those who don’t know the story should have made the connection, and realised that first contact comes prior to the birth of Hannah, in which case, what is striking when the alien ships arrive? Yes, we note that a linguist is ignoring all the screens as she walks through the campus building, and has failed to notice everyone gravitating towards them. Yes, we note that she presses on with her lecture even though the auditorium is almost empty (you do – I’ve given that lecture, too). But what happens in that lecture theatre? People’s cell phones start ringing, with others passing on the news that the aliens arrived. Now, we could say that for the sake of professionalism, Banks has switched her phone to silence while she lectures, but for the sake of the film, let’s assume she didn’t, and that it was on ‘vibrate’. It didn’t ring before she went into the lecture theatre, it doesn’t ring while she’s in the lecture theatre. The students have to ask her to switch on the screen so they can see what’s happening. In other words, the communications specialist has no one communicating with her socially, has no one to communicate with socially. We can only speculate on what her life at the university is like; apparently, it does not involve collegiality, yet she equally obviously has nothing to do outside except gravitate back towards her university office.

By contrast, everyone one around her seems to be communicating furiously but with little effect. Screen after screen of news reports, the bank of screens communicating with specialists at the other contact sites, and yet no one can figure out what’s happening. The screens provide a handy visual reference for the compartmentalisation of information that is going on. Everyone has a question they want to ask, variations of the question Colonel Weber asks: ‘what is your purpose here?’, but it is as if everyone has suddenly forgotten the etiquette of communication. And both story and film suggest that people are surprised, outraged even, that the aliens abide by the same rules of not giving away anything. Except, of course, that they’ve given away everything if people choose to collaborate; or finally recognise that they must collaborate.

It’s here, I think, that the film seems a little weaker, presenting us with the idea of Banks seeing into the future, and saving the world from global war. The story is rather more low-key – as I said before, it’s about ‘what’, so the problem-solving is, in and of itself, sufficiently satisfying. A film needs more overt drama, I assume, so we have the sub-plot of the group of soldiers deciding to blow up the space ship, for example. I did like how this was done. It’s never discussed but is raised for the viewer through expressions, significant glances, a mention of something on the radio. I particularly liked the way it was assumed by the plotters that the aliens wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t understand what was going on, so it was fine to bring in the explosives in plain view. Or, because they were aliens, maybe they were invisible. There’s a lot going on in just that small sequence.

The larger sub-plot, how Banks saves the world, reaching forward in time to memorise a phone number, stretched my willingness to believe just slightly, but if you look back at the original text, while there is no Chinese general, the text does begin to break down in such a way as to suggest that as Banks works with the heptapod language it is changing her experience of the world, moving back and forth in time. It’s subtle; I missed it the first time but it is there. In the film, though, it seems to need to be made more explicit.

And yet, having said that, it is reinforced in less immediately tangible ways. Paul Kincaid and I have disagreed slightly over the film’s opening. I thought initially it was a little deceitful in synopsising what comes later, perhaps tricking the audience into assuming that Banks is grieving rather than being crashingly lonely, only to reveal later that … The story, I realised after a second reading, is actually a circular thing. The end is the beginning – the question ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ is asked twice, once at the beginning, once at the end. There is an overlap. The film doesn’t do that, I thought, until Paul Kincaid pointed out that at the beginning of the film, in the first shot of the house’s interior, there are two wine glasses, as there are at the end of the film, when the question is asked. The overlap is, as it must be, visual.

And finally, I go back to Will Elwood’s query. Is Arrival an adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’? And I think the answer has to be no, because it is a translation of the story. Or, if we ‘spoke’ Heptapod, there would be a frighteningly elegant semagram which would bring together words like ‘adaptation’ and ‘translation’ and ‘reworking’ as facets of a larger concept. But we are stuck with words and images and do the best we can.

Watching The Good Dinosaur

Someone recently lent me this, saying it was, and I quote, ‘a bit weird’. It certainly was.

The Good Dinosaur comes billed as the most beautiful film Pixar has ever made, and there is no denying that it looks gorgeous. Exquisite scenery, some of it so well animated you’re hard-pressed to believe it’s not cine-photography. The water in particular looks … er, watery. The mountains look as though they might have been borrowed from Peter Jackson’s extended hymn to New Zealand, although later it becomes fairly obvious that the story is using American settings (and indeed, the film’s Wikipedia entry lists a number of them, though not Monument Valley which was also clearly visible). After that come fumaroles, boiling mud pots, geysers. There were moments when I was strongly reminded of my own geological travels down the western seaboard of the USA. And that’s still not all. The realisation of the trees, plants, incidental birds, insects and small mammals is just awesome. For those old enough to remember how revolutionary the film of Watership Down was in its day, it’s the 2015 equivalent of that opening sequence showing the field of broad beans.Pixar-Good-Dinosaur-Landscape-Technology

Except that when the animators on that film introduced the main protagonists – the rabbits – they mostly still looked like rabbits. Yes, they had been slightly humanised but they were still recognisably rabbits. For The Good Dinosaur, we unsurprisingly have dinosaurs, but if you’re imagining slightly humanised Jurassic-style dinosaurs, you will be sadly disappointed. The Good Dinosaur might feature dinosaur shapes – apatosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex, pteranodon, a styracosaurus (like a triceratops but with more horns), and some velociraptors – but that is pretty much where it begins and ends. In some ways, this is inevitable. We’re dealing with Pixar, and they have a certain way of doing things. Their dinosaurs are to real dinosaurs as their character Sadness is to me, i.e. not very. There is a conceptual relationship of sorts but only of sorts. So, in the case of Arlo, the good dinosaur of the title, he might look like an apatosaurus, but his skin is cartoon-frog green, only lightly patterned, and very polished, plastic almost, while his facial expressions betray the technical director’s previous involvement with things like Monsters University, which is similarly marked by highly polished, plastic-looking characters. Or, as I couldn’t help thinking, it was as though Wallace and Gromit had been transformed into one dinosaur. Those teeth! That faintly worried expression. One half-expected someone to say ‘cracking corn, Arlo’. It might have improved things slightly if they had. The tyrannosaurus rex fared slightly better in that they were allowed to be craggy, but this was because they were ranchers rather than farmers (we’ll get to that in a moment – it’s going to be a good moment).spot and arlo

I acknowledge that I am being slightly unreasonable by expecting any verité from what is, after all, intended to be morally uplifting entertainment. One might justify this by pointing out that the plot is not remotely realistic, so why should the dinosaurs be? It’s a fair point, but nonetheless, I would contend that if you’re going to go to all the trouble of producing such realistic animation for the landscapes, you might also want to go to a little more trouble with your main characters. Alas, Pixar did not. The dinosaurs look as though they have been parachuted into an exquisite landscape by an over-zealous toy manufacturer, which is probably not so far from the truth. This is a Walt Disney film, after all. We’re not dealing with an indy film-maker, but an arm of a multi-million-dollar enterprise with a very particular view of the world it wants to push.

Now for the story. Its initial premise is alluring. Dinosaurs were not wiped out by a meteor collision. There was no K-T extinction event, just a bright light briefly zipping through the sky. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of years go by and dinosaurs remain on the earth. Except, somewhere along the way they have upped their evolution game and acquired the trappings of what we might consider civilisation. That is, the vegetarian apatosauruses have become farmers, growing and harvesting maize, which they then store in rock-built silos. This enables some amusing shots of apatosauruses ploughing the ground with their snouts, and using their long necks as a way of spraying water across their fields, raising probably enough corn to keep one apatosaurus in light snacks for a winter’s day, or at any rate to feed their chickens. What they subsist on the rest of the time remains unclear. Later, we will see that the tyrannosaurus rex are raising what they call ‘longhorns’, bison with enormous auroch-like horns, and herding them on the plains (though I couldn’t help noting that no mention was made of why they might be herding them, i.e. for food – the script was too busy being amused at portraying T.rex as a goodie). And everyone lives happily side by distant side (lacking only a chorus of ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends’).Good Dinosar corn silo

This is a nonsensical model of sustainability, of course, but it isn’t intended to be believable so much as to reinforce a sense that life would have always turned out this way in the United States, be it with humans or dinosaurs. Manifest dinosaur destiny, if you like. Or, a failure of imagination, if you prefer. Either way, this is going to be a film about good old-fashioned white American values, played out in an alternative Big Country, and sure enough, much of the early part of the film focuses on Arlo, the runt of the dinosaur litter, struggling to find some way of ‘making his mark’ on the world – literally, in this case, as it involves making a muddy dinosaur footprint on the corn silo, which is pretty much at the centre of this story. Arlo is a small dinosaur, frightened of everything, in awe of his father, and determined to make him proud. When Henry, his father, puts him to guarding the silo and find out who is stealing their corn, Arlo sets to with a will, catching the miscreant, who turns out to be a very small boy, at which point Arlo baulks at killing another creature and the boy escapes. Henry insists that they track the boy and so they head off up-river as the clouds gather, a storm breaks and the father is swept away in a flash flood. Cue shot of gravestone, at which point I was seriously in WTF territory.

And cue shots of clouds. When in doubt, show some clouds. There are lots of clouds in this film, to the extent that they almost become characters in their collective right. The reason for this is apparently that the film-makers have developed a new technique for making Volumetric Clouds, that is, clouds that actually look like clouds (to the extent that the credits feature a whole section on the people who worked on the Volumetric Clouds).This is perhaps a clue to what is really going on with this film, but first, back to the plot. The apatosaurus family struggles on, trying to get the harvest in – these are homesteading dinosaurs with no near neighbours, obviously – but when Arlo discovers that the small boy is back, he chases after him, falls in the river, and floats way off downstream. Once he has recovered from this mishap he determines that he must go home, and he knows that the best way to do this is to follow the river upstream. Astonishingly, considering how many miles Arlo must have travelled in the water, considering how long it takes him to get back, the small boy is still there, and given that Arlo is utterly useless in the wild, the small boy starts to look after him.arloandspot

The small boy is represented in the soundtrack by what I would characterise as pseudo-native flute music, so one might argue that he is taking up the role of the Good Indian, but the chronology is complicated here if we assume that such evolution as has occurred (and it frankly doesn’t look like that much has, other than the plasticisation of the dinosaurs and their taking up farming as a marker of civilisation) still places humans as having come after the dinosaurs. On the other hand, there are clear views about who owns what in terms of land and produce, and the small human boy is initially regarded as vermin by the apatosauruses, so who knows. It doesn’t get much better when Arlo calls the boy Spot, pushing him into the oh-so-amusing role of pet dog (he even howls like a wolf). And yes, we are supposed to understand that Spot is far cleverer than Arlo when it comes to survival, though it’s uncertain whether we should read that as a foreshadowing of the delayed but inevitable rise of humans.arlopteranodon

Arlo and Spot make a picaresque journey through the mid-West, trying to get home, and along the way they meet all sorts of western film tropes, as well as other creatures, including the bizarre styracosaurus who prompted Arlo to call the boy Spot, after a competition to see which of them would keep him; and a small flock of pteranodons, whom Arlo mistakes for rescuers after a storm, but who are quartering the ground for displaced creatures to eat. This is possibly the most realistic moment in the film, but for the sake of the story the pteranodons become the villains of the piece.the-good-dinosaur-trexs

Arlo and Spot are rescued from this confrontation by a family of cow-punching tyrannosaurus rex, and Arlo and Spot in turn help them find their herd of longhorns, which are being rustled by velociraptors. It belatedly occurs to me that the pteranodons and velociraptors are rather more accurately represented in their appearance and behaviour than the good characters (though admittedly this is for values of accuracy that apply only to this film).The_Good_Dinosaur_velociraptors

So, finally, Arlo is almost home but has to stop and rescue Spot from the vengeful pteranodons one last time, to underline the fact that they are friends, equals, etc. (though not before he has a confrontation with the ghost of his father and makes his own choice about what to do). At this point a set of slightly better dressed humans (they have furs, and are possibly refugees from the Frozen kingdom) rock up and Spot finds himself torn between them and Arlo, until Arlo picks up an earlier theme of family and sends Spot away with them. Here family is clearly designated as ‘people who look like you’ rather than creatures with whom you have formed a bond, and we can doubtless rest assured they will teach Spot better manners and better dress sense. And if you’re thinking this seems rather like the end of Disney’s original The Jungle Book, you would be justified in thinking that, : there are a few other resonances as well, not least the similarities between the crows and the pteranodons.schlock

But after all this Arlo has come home, and finally gets to make his muddy mark on the silo. And that’s it. This entire 90 minutes of ‘did they really just do what I thought they did?’ is predicated on Arlo’s now being enough of a dinosaur to be able to mark his muddy footprint on a rock. Ninety overly-moralised minutes of my life I won’t get back again.

My initial theory, going back to the Volumetric Clouds, was that The Good Dinosaur is actually a show reel for the animators, and having read a few bits and pieces about the struggles to get the film made, I’m inclined to stick with that idea, especially as the ‘struggles’ seem to centre on the actual story … the need to find one. To me, the most successful moments of the film are when Spot and Arlo aren’t really doing anything except bouncing joyously through the landscape, a dinosaur and his boy, playing together. The scene in the prairie dog town, as they blow the prairie dogs out of their holes, is genuinely hilarious, while the encounters with fireflies are moments of wonder and beauty. But the moment the film turns to anything serious, the heavy hand of good old-fashioned Disney morality descends and the whole thing buckles and collapses under the weight of noble but misguided intention. This film may have exquisite background visuals, but it has very little else, and I am disappointed in Pixar. Admittedly, I don’t think they always get it right (Inside Out, to me, has similar problems with its story though I know many people adore it, and Up is two films bolted together, one of them tiny and exquisite, the other overly long and crudely executed) but generally they do better than this. I love the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc and especially The Incredibles. And the difference in each case is that the film has a story. Maybe they had a story first. I remain suspicious that The Good Dinosaur was nothing more than those Volumetric Clouds and all that beautifully animated water looking for a place to disport themselves.

Compare The Good Dinosaur with something like Zootropolis, which I’ve also seen recently, and it’s clear that it doesn’t matter how much great animation you have, and how many good sight gags you include, without a strong story (and Zootropolis has a very strong story indeed), you’re lost before you start. Zootropolis and The Good Dinosaur are working in similar territory, with rampant anthropomorphism and a life-affirming tale of surmounting the odds, but the script for Zootropolis has wit and verve, while the script for The Good Dinosaur limps along, rather as its main character does at various points.

The View from G21: watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Given Paul Kincaid and I were pretty much the last people left who hadn’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’m assuming you’ve all seen it. If you haven’t, and care about these things, be advised I will be discussing all of it. All of it.

Princess Leia was at the cinema yesterday.

She was a very small princess, but she had a lightsabre, and her hair was perfect.

I couldn’t see what her brother was wearing but her parents seemed to be in 21st century British clothes.

I would have loved to ask her what she thought of General Leia, and of Rey, and Finn, and Kylo. And grizzled Han Solo. And bearded Luke.

For that matter, I wonder what her parents thought, given they looked about the age to have grown up with all this.

That growing up with a film or franchise seems to be important right now. I was struck a while ago by people complaining about how the new Ghostbusters would ruin their childhood because they’d watched it endlessly as children. I saw it for the first time when I was 25; it’s one of my favourite films even now, but I don’t have that kind of investment in it. I noticed people talking about the significance of Labyrinth in their childhood after David Bowie died. (I’ve never actually seen Labyrinth; perhaps I should.) And I suspect there are people who feel similarly about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Galaxy Quest now that Alan Rickman has gone. (You know, I completely forgot about the Harry Potter films. Seriously. I have apparently completely wiped them out of my mind.)

But head and shoulders above all these stands Star Wars. I didn’t see the original film when it came out in 1977, for various reasons involving a boyfriend who didn’t like sf films. I first saw it around 1980/81, in a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back. I was the last one into the cinema, because there was one seat left and I was the first person they found in the queue who was on her own (I’d married a man who didn’t like sf films).

The seat was high up at the back of the cinema, higher than I normally preferred. I don’t really remember much about either film from that viewing, except that sequence when Luke Skywalker acts as gunner while Han Solo and Chewbacca fly the shit out of the Millennium Falcon. Had I been prone to saying ‘holy shit’ in those days, I’d have probably said that. It was … awesome. (I didn’t say that in those days, either.) Never mind the carnage, I was all wow! explosions! can I do that?!?

I saw Return of the Jedi six times when it came out. At least six times. Lots of widescreen shooty-shooty but mostly, I loved it for that moment when Luke Skywalker suddenly emerged from the shadows, and hey, we were back in business again. What can I say? I was 24, went to a lot of films on my own, and was coming to the conclusion that maybe I didn’t want any longer to be married to a man who didn’t like sf films.

I didn’t watch sf films critically in those days. I consumed them like sweeties, empty calories to fill the void. I found it hard to disentangle myself from the best of them (Blade Runner. Always Blade Runner) and laughed at myself for going in when I emerged from seeing the crap ones (and if you think I’m going to admit to some of the films I saw …)

Return of the Jedi? Good, definitely. Great? Possibly. But it wasn’t Blade Runner. Nonetheless, it offered a fairy-tale narrative of redemption and renewal, and restoration. We could all get through this and find something better. It would be fine. And I’d go and see it again the following week on my afternoon off, just to convince myself again.

I skipped the prequels. Well, wouldn’t you?

And now, here I am, in a cinema, in Folkestone, married to a man who likes some sf films (the man who took me to see Ghostbusters on our very first ‘official’ date – I pretty much had to marry him eventually), and we’re about to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s been thirty-three years since I saw a Star Wars film in the cinema. Holy shit, it’s been thirty-three years!!!

I’d got a rough idea of what to expect, from trailer snippets, from things people had written (I don’t lose sleep about spoilers, as you may know, though it turns out there was one thing I didn’t actually know; we’ll come to that later).

First impressions. It’s a Star Wars film. There’s the summary scrolling up the screen. And the music. Oh gosh, the music. This is like coming home, isn’t it? So exciting …

And then there’s this feeling that everything is all a bit … familiar? Haven’t we been here before? I mean, actually. Been. Here. Before?

Well, ok, it has changed, a little. Rather than bumping off a few innocent civilians while looking for a droid with information, let’s annihilate entire settlements, and show the annihilation in progress. ‘Plosions, space ships, storm troopers, fires, people running and screaming, shooting, ker-pow!!! Isn’t this great???

Er, I don’t know? Is it? My younger self remains silent on this issue, though I suspect she might have liked it. Especially in 3-D, had it existed in the cinema then (I mean, really existed) as her eyes were still about as good as they were likely to be and she didn’t yet wear glasses (although as she had no depth-perception even then she needed them).

Me? I’m thinking ‘holy shit!’, and not in a positive way.

And oh dear god, did they really just do that thing with the bloody handprint so you know which storm trooper to follow? Oh god, they just did.

face:palm as we also didn’t say in the old days.

I just don’t know … Actually, I do know, and am busy composing a brisk paragraph in my head about not trusting the audience, making it too easy, and so on.

A ghastly sense of inevitability begins to impinge.

I’m old, I’ve watched a lot of films in my time, including Star Wars, and it’s actually really not that difficult (mostly) to see what’s coming. Stormtrooper becomes human, decides to rescue captured pilot as ticket out. Escape from the Death Star Mk.II, in one of those cute little ships that looks like a diablo, and … whee, shooty-shooty. Apparently, my inner twenty-something is still big on the space gunnery. Which is handy, as there is going to be more of it. Yee-ha!

Wait! Why are we on Arrakis? Or Tatooine? No, they’re calling it Jakku this time. Was that a sandworm? Whatever, we are back in a marginal desert settlement-thing, allowing everyone to dress up in flowing robes, absolutely not being orientalist, no sir, look, we’ve got goggles and respirators, too, see?

Twenty-something me approves desperately of Rey. Current-me wonders why she doesn’t cover up her lower legs, as though they are magically immune to sunburn, sand burns, bugs, etc. I guess it’s for the climbing scenes.

Finn loses Poe Dameron, his new pilot, who has already lost his cat, sorry, droid (see Inside Llewyn Davis if you don’t get that one; and as Paul Kincaid points out, actually, this time the ‘cat’s lost Poe). Finn finds Rey – are two people incapable of meeting around here without another fucking firefight breaking out? Apparently, they are. Boom. More innocent bystanders shot up.

Let’s fly away. No, that ship’s just been blown up. Let’s fly away and use this ship instead. Holy shit (for real, this time), it’s the Millennium Falcon, hotly pursued by someone who looks remarkably like a remade Bombur from The Hobbit. I’m no longer entirely sure which film I am in.

But this, it turns out, this is what I am here for: this sequence as Rey flies the Millennium Falcon in, out, and upside down, across the face of Jakku, trying to escape Nazis-from-the-Antarctic, with Finn as her gunner. Because I cannot do this in my beloved Peugeot 208, not even on an empty motorway, for reasons involving gravity and traffic regulations. Young-me and current-me have bonded over the joy of watching the Millennium Falcon do handbrake turns all over hyperspace. Sigh.

The reappearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca is almost a grace note but there they are, and it’s all so … sorry, seem to have got something in my eye. Is that a speck of sentiment or is it just something that’s shaken its way out of the air duct? Despite what I might have already said about Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, it was always about Han Solo for me. And apparently, still is. Older … much, much older … and superbly grey and grizzled.

And being weirdly meta- about the whole thing, as though he is also thinking what I’m thinking. Harrison Ford is certainly not phoning in his performance, but I’m not entirely sure he’s always in the same film as the others. It’s funny but also disconcerting, as though he is not taking it entirely seriously. And he reminds me of someone, and I still don’t know who.

Later, once they’ve got back to the resistance planet, and he and Leia are quasi-amicably bickering, I find myself thinking of Fonda and Hepburn in On Golden Pond. And I’m torn. Because on the one hand, I am thinking that it’s fabulous to have an action movie with older people in it, even if one of them is staying at home rather too much (please give her a gun, later). On the other hand, Hollywood still apparently can only account for older couples on screen by having them estranged/squabbling/testy, and I’m kind of hurt by that. I’m looking to Han and Leia to represent me on screen, and … no, it’s not entirely working, is it? Perhaps I am too old for this. I smile as Chewbacca fusses about Han putting his coat on when they’re wandering around in Antarctica, sorry, on the ice planet, looking for the First Order base, but at the same time, I am thinking that this is like being a thirteen-year-old, reading Lord of the Rings, and identifying with Strider because there is a chronic lack of active women who aren’t elves in LOTR, and not realising that this was a problem.

I see it now. Because I’m a 56-year-old woman who is identifying with a character played by a 73-year-old man, and it’s 2016. Maybe I should identify with Rey, and to some extent I do, but not enough. There seem to be a number of younger visible women – pilots, bystanders, vamps, and so on – but this film gives me, me specifically, Leia, the doctor played by Harriet Walter, possibly Phazma but who knows under that armour, and Maz Kanata, the Guinan de nos jours (also played by a woman of colour, a young woman of colour, and a lot less visible under that than Whoopi Goldberg ever was. And I haven’t got time to stop and think about the mystical person of colour shtick). It’s not a lot to go on, is it? Maybe I can pretend there’s a middle-aged mechanic on the Resistance base.

And, wait, I’m lost now … what were we shooting up in this section? As Maz’s trading post is being destroyed, I suddenly realise I’m done with seeing things explode, masonry crumble and fall, and stormtroopers fly through the air every few seconds. The attrition rate is appalling; no wonder they are constantly recruiting. I’m slightly surprised they’ve not yet taken the orc route and started breeding them, but I can see that might be a franchise too far, and anyway, it’s always a good idea not to cross the streams. Sadly, there is a lot more exploding to go; indeed, the entire film seems to be predicated on blowing things up, including planet-sized weapons. I’m going slightly deaf by this point, and my eyes are suffering from the flashes of light as another person or object goes up in flames. And that includes what is now a mere shell of a plot.

I’m getting impatient with the film, which seems to be getting impatient with itself. There’s none of this nonsense about training to be a Jedi. In this generation, Rey can lay hands on a lightsabre and immediately start hacking away at Kylo Ren with considerable aplomb. Of course, she’s used to fighting, as is Finn, and though neither was trained to skewer things they do quite well. Kylo may be trained to fight but to add to his general woes, he’s not that good at it, which is unfortunate, and to compound things, Rey is naturally ace at doing things with the Force as well. Damn. At least he’ll be in demand for his Snape impersonation.

I’m being facetious now, because, really, there is little else left to do. Other than to debate the one thing I didn’t know about. The death of Han Solo. He has to come back, right? Though given the way things have been so far … Paul did express disappointment that Han Solo didn’t cry ‘Fly, you fools’, as the Balrog got him, sorry, as he fell into the void, but I have already warned you about the dangers of crossing the streams. But seriously, does he come back? Logic demands that he must, because the logic of film franchises like this is that no one named ever really dies, unless they die, and he hasn’t died yet. Not properly. I mean: like the White Witch, you can always get them back if you really want to, and probably with more success than resurrecting her. Rather as we’re fairly sure that we’ve not see the last of Kylo Ren, might we hold out some sort of hope for the return of Han Solo? At least so he can get his revenge on Emo Kylo for stabbing him through the heart with a lightsabre (a move that is incidentally used at least once too often, taking an element of surprise out of it)? Or was that it?

I admit, after that, I lost a certain amount of interest, even when Rey goes off to find Slavoj Žižek, sorry, Luke Skywalker, who appears to have gone to ground on Skellig Michael, presumably because he can. Take that, New Zealand!

I did enjoy The Force Awakens up to a point. But only up to a point. I like that there is another Star Wars movie in the world, that includes things I enjoyed about the originals (ok, the Millennium Falcon doing handbrake turns – so sue me, I’m shallow) but I look at it now, and all I can think of is how thin, how stretched, how  like butter scraped across bread this plot is. How this film is really one long series of nods to its predecessors, with very little in the way of newness. Some adjustment of gender roles, to be sure, and some foregrounding of actors of colour, all at long last. And I will just say here that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both outstanding actors. Along with, Harrison Ford and Chewie, they are the most watchable things on the screen. I love the moment when, having evaded the First Order, they’re excitedly dancing around, talking over each other. I love that Rey is so good a pilot she can match Han Solo. I love the giddiness of Rey and Finn falling in love. It reminds me of …

And that’s my problem, right there. It reminds me of … well, it reminds me of things I don’t feel inclined to talk about right now, but if you knew us then, knew us well, back in the day, it reminds me of that. And that takes me back to the hurt I feel about Han and Leia. We can be reminded of, but we can’t actually be …

But back in the cinema, the film was over. Princess Leia was on her way home. She’d obviously had a good time. In the foyer there was a man with learning difficulties, bouncing up and down excitedly, asking us all if we’d enjoyed seeing the film. I enjoyed his enjoyment.

As for me, it was time to go home. I felt hammered by sound. My ears were tired, my eyes were tired, my brain was curled in a foetal ball, screaming ‘enough with the self-referentiality, already. You have ticked every single fucking box, and pleased everyone by recalling their special memory of first Star Wars. Please stop it now’.

On the plus side, there were, thank god, no Ewoks.

‘he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women’ – the Sherlock Christmas special

If you have not seen the Sherlock Christmas Special as yet, and are worried about finding out how it ends, I suggest you go and watch it before you read this. If you’re not worried, read on.

[Mrs Hudson] stood in the deepest awe of him and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women. He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent.

Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventure of the Dying Detective

‘What exactly is the point of you?’ Sherlock Holmes to Mrs Hudson

Steven Moffat – His Last Vow (Sherlock, Season 3)

I mostly abandoned Sherlock at the beginning of series 2, because I found it so irritating, and at the time I had too little patience with things that irritated me to set about finding out why they irritated me. I suspected back then it might have something to do with the shows being insufficiently canonical, which probably meant that I was actually being a bit too stuffy about the whole thing, and that was the kind of self-examination I wasn’t really prepared to deal with just then.

So, new year, better attitude: I decided to watch ‘The Abominable Bride’, the Sherlock Christmas special. The premise looked intriguing and, I admit it, I was curious about the fact the show would be set in Victorian London. Foolishly, I had assumed it was a genuine one-off show, an honest-to-god Christmas special, a return to the textual taproot, so to speak. You would think I would know better than that by now, but I apparently still have much to learn about the Way of Moffat.

The first thing to recognise, perhaps, is that anything I might know, he will know better: he will know anything better than me. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockian by any means – I don’t possess that obsessive character quirk that appears to mark the genuine fan of anything– but I’ve read, watched and listened to the stories in various adaptations enough times to have a decent working knowledge of the canon, even if I don’t have a minutely detailed recall of every actor who has so much as sneezed in one frame of film.

However, two things in particular I have learned over the years. One is that while Sherlock Holmes may not particularly like women, as a rule he behaves well towards them and listens sympathetically to their problems. Conan Doyle states this most clearly, through his mouthpiece, John H. Watson, in ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’, but one sees ample evidence of this elsewhere. One might cite, for example, ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, in which Holmes several times praises the resourceful Miss Violet Hunter, who takes a post, aware that something is amiss, and takes the precaution of contacting Sherlock Holmes before leaving London. One might note his behaviour towards Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four, or any number of other examples throughout the texts, up to and including the landlady in ‘The Adventure of the Red Circle’ or ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’. Holmes is canonically far more sympathetic than people realise.

The other thing I know is that Conan Doyle himself created the metafictional aspect of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with Holmes regularly making disparaging observations about Watson’s prowess as a writer. ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’ is recounted by Holmes himself in response to Watson’s urging.

For a long time he has worried me to write an experience of my own. Perhaps I have rather invited this persecution, since I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidily to facts and figures.

‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ seems to emerge from Holmes’ need to record a peculiar case at a point when Watson is not there to be his amanuensis. ‘Thus I must act as my own chronicler.’

Radio 4 took up the metafictional aspect of adapting Sherlock Holmes well before Steven Moffat came on the scene, and with much more subtlety. Those familiar with the Clive Merrison/Michael Williams Holmes and Watson productions will be aware that the fact of Watson writing about Holmes was a frequent topic of discussion in the narrative frame, and not just Holmes disparaging Watson’s flair for melodrama. Think of it more as an ongoing low-key examination of the nature of fictionality, to the point where the narrative raises some very interesting philosophical points about identity.

Cut then to ‘The Abominable Bride’, and to Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, complaining to Watson about the paucity of lines for her in his stories. This is actually entirely true – in the canon, Mrs Hudson is mentioned a bare 13 times, yet somehow she seems to be more present than that, a fact that has seeped into tv and radio productions, where she often has more lines than she ever did in the originals.

But then, as we have been reminded constantly, what is the point of Mrs Hudson, of Mary Morstan, Molly Hooper, and the various other women who have drifted through three series of Sherlock, other having to put up with Sherlock’s petulance and rudeness? Unlike their counterparts in Conan Doyle’s stories these women are rarely accorded respect by Sherlock Holmes, whom we must, I fear, regard as Moffat’s mouthpiece.

Moffat has been called out on this constantly over three series yet has pretty much stuck his fingers in his ears and gone la-la-la to indicate how he doesn’t mind, in between throwing tantrums whenever he feels a little too beleaguered by the fans’ failure to appreciate his ongoing wonderfulness in delivering up this amazing show. Like his creation, Moffat lacks respect; he lacks respect for a good percentage of his audience while being complicit with the other portion, who of course appreciate his laddish witticisms. But this has all been said before so I am hardly bringing anything new to the table.

I think, though, that ‘respect’, or the lack of it, is perhaps key to understanding what Moffat does, or doesn’t do, and almost the main reason why he gets up my nose so much. He may love Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation with an unreasoning nerdy joy, and that’s fine. There is a place for someone to hold all those little fragments of information in their head and trot them out for our edification as the circumstances allow. But Moffat does not respect the idea of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and that’s a whole different thing.

And by ‘respect’, or lack of it, I don’t mean the playing fast and loose with the canon, but the manner of that playing fast and loose. It’s one thing to insert knowing references to ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ or ‘The Five Orange Pips’, and a slyer reference to ‘The Greek Interpreter’ (which I spotted immediately, so go me). It’s another thing to take the canonical figure, move it to contemporary times, and then effectively trash it simply because you can. Because it seems to me that this is what Moffat does every time he puts a woman into Sherlock and silences her or demeans her in some way.

While contemporary Sherlock Holmes has a range of skills available to him that are different to those of his nineteenth-century counterpart, he is nonetheless still Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s character. Except that Moffat has entirely stripped him of his humanity because he apparently doesn’t have the skill to read the deeper character. Or rather, he may think he does – because it’s all about Irene Adler, isn’t it? – but I don’t think he does. He might even argue – maybe he has and I missed it – that his Sherlock Holmes is intentionally the complete antithesis of the original – except that I don’t believe this either. Moffat’s Sherlock doesn’t seem to me to be a radical departure from the canonical figure so much as an excuse for a badly behaved Millennial to rampage around London with impunity. Or to put it another way, you don’t get to label yourself as a sociopath; that’s a job for others. And if you are going to be openly misogynistic, you’d better have a damn good reason for doing it – Irene made me do it doesn’t count.

To judge from the Christmas episode, however, it would seem that word has finally reached Moffat’s brain that women are not pleased with him. That, in fact, they are really displeased, and given they form a significant chunk of the fanbase, it has become clear to him that he must do something. The Abominable Bride could be read, therefore, as some sort of attempt to address past deficiencies, an attempt to ask oneself as writer how one could have let it get so bad. Mrs Hudson could indeed ask John H Watson why she had so few lines in his stories. Mary Morstan could find her way, heavily veiled, to 221b Baker Street to ask John Watson why the hell he hasn’t been home lately. His parlour maid could ask John Watson why he never mentions her in his stories. Poor John – everyone wants to know why he’s being so nasty to them, and of course he has no answer, because he can’t really say ‘the scriptwriter made me do it’.

Sherlock Holmes remains silent, because it is not his department. He’s got a dead body to worry about. The body of Emelia Ricoletti, who the previous afternoon blew out her brains before a large audience of bystanders, only to re-appear later the same day, armed with a shotgun, to blow two large holes through her husband. It was the Ricolettis’ wedding anniversary, Emelia was dressed in her wedding gown, and killed her husband outside a Limehouse opium den, again before witnesses, before vanishing into the fog. By the time Holmes and Watson reach the morgue, her body is lying chained down on a mortuary table, because, apparently, her fingers are smeared with blood, and someone has used that blood to write ‘You’ on the wall in rather shaky letters (see ‘rache’, in A Study in Scarlet), all of which suggests that the corpse of Emelia Ricoletti committed the murder of her husband.

Naturally, the highly rational Holmes will not have any of this. Nor will he accept any of Watson’s faintly ludicrous explanations, such as that Emelia Ricoletti has a secret twin. It is never twins, he says firmly, and indeed it never is. But as he surely knows himself, it doesn’t have to be a twin, just someone who looks similar. As in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, say, though canonically that hasn’t happened yet, as it’s five stories after ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, which provides the anchor for this story. Or, say, as in a story of a man who fakes his own suicide at the end of Series Two of a tv show at some point in the future.

And here I have to say that whatever else I feel about ‘The Abominable Bride’ the little nugget of actual story was gorgeously done, one of those moments when you think to yourself, ‘thank god, they do actually know what they’re doing’, even though you know you’ll inevitably be disabused of that notion a few scenes later. I assumed the sensationalism and melodrama of it all, complete with an outing for one of my favorite stage effects, Pepper’s Ghost, was a nod to the original Holmes’s regular complaint that Watson dressed up his stories with flagrant disregard for the actual facts. If so, this was, I think, far further over the top than anything Conan Doyle’s Watson could have dreamed of. I was really quite excited about it.

A string of murders follows – Holmes not unreasonably dismisses them as copycat murders – and then Mycroft directs Holmes and Watson to take on a case from one Lady Carmichael, concerned for her husband, Lord Eustace, who has received five orange pips in an envelope in the post, which apparently signifies his death. Later, he sees the Bride in the grounds of his house. Lady Carmichael has come to Holmes, asking him to protect Lord Eustace.

In directing the case to Holmes, Mycroft comments ominously that they will be battling an enemy who lurks constantly at their elbow: Watson rattles off a shopping list of nineteenth-century concerns (read Conrad’s The Secret Agent if you want a sense of London at this time), all of which Mycroft dismisses. Watching a second time, you get a very clear sense of what Mycroft is hinting at, something that both Holmes and Watson have so far failed to grasp in their various ways. Holmes has apparently failed to notice that Hooper, the surgeon at the mortuary, is in fact a woman. Watson has spotted this, and kindly lets Hooper know that he is aware, making a snide comment about the things people do to get on in the world. Our first view of the doomed Sir Eustace includes him making snide remarks about his wife’s plans for the day, assuming she will either do embroidery or visit her milliner, when clearly she has two children, a husband and a house to take care of, at the very least.

To protect Sir Eustace, Holmes and Watson stake out the house, waiting in a convenient conservatory until something happens. This is the stuff of so many of Conan Doyle’s stories – waiting under cover of dark for something to happen – but here Moffat decides to fill in the gaps by having Watson try to persuade Holmes to open up about his past. It is, of course, painful bromance stuff, and this viewer at least shared Holmes’s relief when the ‘ghost’ showed up and they could do some running around.

Perhaps the most spectacular moment comes when, as Holmes is in the house, Watson stands guard by the window they have smashed to gain entrance, and the ‘ghost’ appears behind him. We know, of course, that the ghost must be corporeal, but we might feel a certain sympathy for Watson when he legs it in search of Holmes. There was a genuine frisson of fear at that moment. I savoured it, little realising that things were about to go seriously off the rails.

Or maybe I had noticed already. Because, at this point in the proceedings, I couldn’t help noticing that, with half the show still to run, we didn’t exactly seem to be going anywhere. There was the odd detail of Holmes, Watson and Lestrade suddenly finding a note on the corpse of Sir Eustace where there had been none before. And had I seen all of Series Two and Three it might have made more sense to begin with. And what about Mycroft?

Conan Doyle’s Mycroft is described thus by Watson, when he meets him for the first time in ‘The Greek Interpreter’:

‘Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.

‘I am glad to meet you, sir,’ said he, putting out a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal

Fat, yes, but not a glutton, so far as we can tell. Conan Doyle’s Holmes notes that Mycroft leads a very sedentary life, moving between his home, his work and the Diogenes Club, whereas MoffatMycroft seems to owe more to the Pythons’ Mr Creosote, revelling in his gourmandising. And Mycroft draws attention to his increasing girth when Holmes visits him again the next day, and to something else when he describes Holmes as the virus in the data, words that simply don’t belong in Victorian London. Something is not right here.

Indeed, a lot of things are not right. And I don’t just mean in terms of Moffat’s Sherlock Holmes being his usual obnoxious self, rather than being on his best Victorian behaviour. Back at the beginning, Mary Morstan receives a note which is signed ‘M’. There are two possibilities – Moriarty, who is dead, to begin with, or Mycroft, who most certainly is not (nor likely to be as he is played by Mark Gatiss, and it seems unlikely that Moffat and Gatiss will be writing out Gatiss’s character any time soon). At this stage, I can’t tell if this is Moffat attempting to misdirect us – oh my god, Mary’s conniving with Moriarty, who is not dead after all (or has Colonel Sebastian Moran been brought into play) – or whether he’s assuming we’ll assume the obvious, because, well, it’s obvious. Is he playing mind games with his audience, or is he just being an incredibly clumsy storyteller? Could it be, could it actually be that …

Given Moffat can never resist throwing the entire rack of seasonings into almost any story he writes, it’s reasonable to surmise that both Moriarty and Mycroft are involved (and for Sebastian Moran to be there too, for all I know).

And that is the last we see of Mary Morstan for over half the show. Her absence is marked chez Watson, when Watson is having trouble keeping the maid in order (it is, after all, Mary’s job to supervise the household staff, not Watson’s), but Watson himself is irritated rather than puzzled by this. It is an inconvenience rather than a cause for concern. Does this happen all the time? What a remarkably modern marriage, we might think.

So it’s hardly surprising when Moriarty, still dead, at this point, appears in Holmes’ rooms as he tries to puzzle out the business of the Abominable Bride. Hold on, let’s run that past me again. Moriarty is dead and yet here he is, large as life, not quite twice as natural as he seems to have a large hole in the back of his head …

At which point we come to realise that we are not in Victorian London, in a one-off Christmas special, as we thought, and never were, but are in fact in MoffatSherlock’s memory palace, which is of course set up to look like Conan Doyle’s Holmes’s world. And we have just been summoned back to the twenty-first century to appreciate the cleverness of all this. The sense of disappointment I felt at this moment is difficult to convey. Primarily, I felt cheated of the entertainment I had been promised, because yet again Steven Moffat had felt the inexorable desire to disappear up his own fundament and get ludicrously metafictional on his own arse, and that will always, always, always trump any instance where he might have done some good storytelling.

The clues pointing to the fact that Moffat and his creation are locked in some sort of battle to the death within an infinite regress are all there if you remember that Moffat has, essentially, only one subject, and that’s Sherlock. Or rather, as the estimable Abigail Nussbaum pointed out this afternoon on Twitter, insofar as Sherlock is a show about making a show, it is really all about Moffat’s efforts to turn Sherlock into Doctor Who. So, actually, it’s really all about Steven. Again.

We’ll come back to why Sherlock is in his dolls house, sorry, memory palace, in a moment. First, we need to go back to Victorian London and those murders, and luckily Sherlock is able to take us there. By this time we have probably accepted that we are not going to get a straightforward solution to the murders, except … wait, Sherlock surmises how it was done – with the use of a substitute dead body (never a twin), enabling Emelia to murder her husband later that night. Then Emelia herself must die, but that’s ok, because she is making a sacrifice for the cause, and has consumption so is going to die soon anyway. So that’s alright. I guess

This is me giving Moffat the side-eye for that one.

It’s at this point that Holmes and Watson receive word from Mary Morstan – remember her? She has been absent for almost the entire drama so far – who has apparently tracked down the people responsible for the murders and asks for their help. She is, according to Holmes, now in mortal danger. Which is how we find ourselves in the crypt of a (very badly CGI’d) half-ruined church, witnessing a peculiar ceremony with a lot of flaming torches, Latin chant and people parading in hooded costumes. Either they’re penitentes or a hitherto unknown English branch of the Ku Klux Klan (I assume Moffat drew this from ‘The Five Orange Pips’, where the Klan was involved). Maybe Moffat has been reading up on the English folk-horror movement lately.

At which point Holmes reveals he knows exactly what is going on (and doubtless has done all along) and breaks into an impassioned explanation of how these mysterious costumed people are women who have been wronged in various ways by their menfolk and who have decided to act for themselves, murdering the men who have treated them badly. So Emelia Ricoletti, the Abominable Bride, is a symbol they can utilise. Anyone can be Emelia (I’m Emelia; no, I am) as and when needed.

So this is it. This is the culmination of all the odd comments about silent women, powerless women, Watson worrying about suffragists and overly perky housemaids. Mrs Hudson feeling overlooked, Lady Carmichael being slighted by her husband, Emelia Ricoletti murdering her no-good man, Molly Hooper having to conceal her gender in order to get the job she wants. I mean, look, it was Mary who practically solved the case by finding out where the ceremony was happening. But not to worry. Sherlock is here now, to mansplain how badly women are being treated. There, everything’s better, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Well, what do you think?

What I did think was that this might be Moffat’s attempt to try to make amends for his past cock-ups in the feminism department. He’s acknowledged how women are so often demeaned and silenced in his stories by having everyone comment on how they are demeaned and silenced. And then, like a deus ex machina, Sherlock makes a speech – during which he demeans and silences women all over again by reminding them of how they are demeaned and silenced. That is, he speaks for them rather than letting them speak for themselves. And yes, I did notice that Mary’s investigation is conducted entirely off-screen, and we only see it at the end, when Sherlock arrives to take over. I have no idea whether or not that was intentional, but if it wasn’t, and even if it was – you begin to understand why the women are assuming the identity of the Bride and offing their annoying spousal units. (And were I Sherlock Holmes I’d lock my bedroom door at night, just in case Mrs Hudson got an idea or two.)

Nor has it escaped my attention that this is supposedly all Sherlock’s rancid drug-addled imagining anyway, so it would be very easy to dismiss the entire thing out of hand if necessary. Except that I think Moffat really believes he is using Sherlock as a feminist force for good as the laydeez get a decent crack of the whip in this show. Which is, of course, to miss the point entirely, as Moffat so very often does.

And anyway, in case we haven’t realised, all this is a distraction; a grand guignol hammer with which to crack the considerable nut of Sherlock’s ongoing affair with his beloved nemesis, Gentleman Jim Moriarty – how did he kill himself and live to fight another day. This is why Sherlock is sitting in his mental wendy house. For this he has reached back into time to exploit the death of a woman, who shot herself in order to provide other women with a way of dealing with the men who oppressed them, to scratch his unrequited urge to figure out how Moriarty did it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you feminism the Moffat Way. Because everything must always be about Sherlock Holmes; that is, everything must always be about Steven Moffat. This is not an apology for ignoring women, mistreating them, exploiting them. Perhaps Moffat thinks he is acknowledging those concerns with his oh-so-amusing metafictional criticism, having Mrs Hudson go on strike in the name of satire, or having Mary Morstan vanish to solve the case. Perhaps he thinks he’s done a good thing by having Sherlock speak up on behalf of downtrodden women. He may think that but let’s not forget the pay-off. Mary, it turns out, was indeed summoned by Mycroft, and asked to keep an eye on Sherlock, because Mycroft worries about him. Yes, thoroughly modern Mary Morstan is effectively working as a superior sort of nursemaid. Either that or someone got hold of a box set of Elementary and knew a good idea when they saw it.

And as if this weren’t enough, at the very end we are led to believe that it was indeed all a dream. Again. Except this time it was VictorianSherlock speculating on what a future Sherlock might be like. Self-referentiality taken to its furthest extreme and all done up with a red ribbon. Plus an added side of further disrespect as he suggests calling the story the Adventure of the Monstrous Regiment. Oh, how I did not laugh.

I’ve said a couple of times recently that it seems to me that Gatiss and Moffat, despite being almost my age, continue to behave like a couple of rather clever sixth-formers, showing off their cleverness. Which is cute and excusable in sixth-formers, but rather less desirable in almost fifty-somethings. I don’t deny for a moment that they love Sherlock Holmes, and all the hopelessly geeky stuff (and yes, guys, I did notice the name Vernet written in Mycroft’s diary, below Redbeard – I know, Vernet is the name of Sherlock’s French grandmother.) but I contend again that they don’t really ‘get’ Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. That is, they cannot take the character and make something of it in the way that Brett, Merrison, Rathbone, and the writers of Elementary have done. They keep referring back to the original perhaps because they lack the confidence to make it their own, or because they simply don’t have the ideas. I mean, what is all this Moriarty/Redbeard stuff but Bad Wolf all over again? (And to be honest, the way I feel about Sherlock right now, nothing would delight me more than to discover that Moriarty has godlike powers.)

The thing is, you can only do so much standing around being amazed that you get to work on these characters you’ve loved ever since you were old enough to be aware they existed, and showing off how powerful you are because you are now in charge of their stories. Sooner or later, if the stories you are telling are shit – and they are – and you are incapable of acknowledging the existence of half the human race except as a useful peg on which to hang your half-arsed attempt to pretend you hadn’t fucked up on that point in all the other episodes – and you did fuck up, royally – you will be found out. Be you doctor, consulting detective or script-emperor, sooner or later enough people will notice you have got no clothes on. And in fact, lots of us have been noticing this for a long time.

Don’t you think Steven Moffat looks cold?