Friday, September 30, 2022

Rings of Power: Digression

This weeks Quite Interesting discussion on the Twitter was "What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy."

My answer was "If it has swords it is fantasy, but if it has ray guns it is science fiction." 

More pedantically: if it has only swords (Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings) it is fantasy, but if it has both swords and ray-guns (Dune, John Carter of Mars) it is science fiction. 

My favourite answer was "Science fiction as light swords because the writer believes they might be possible; fantasy has light swords because the writer believes they are impossible."

Definitions of this kind always break down: to sustain your argument you have to say that beavers are fish, carrots are fruit, and Star Wars is science fiction. Since people like George R.R Martin and Robin Hobb appear at science fiction conventions and Forbidden Planet sells Tolkien books, the distinction is probably not all that important.

The most useful definition is "Science fiction is the kind of thing that is liked by the kinds of people who like science fiction." This definition also works for Folk Music and Socialism, incidentally. 


Tolkien was troubled by Orcs. There is a scene in Lord of the Rings were Sam looks at the body of a human soldier who had been fighting on Sauron's side, and wonder if he was misled rather than evil. Orcs are a kind of vermin that can be killed freely and without compunction. Gimli and Legolas have a competition to see how many orcs they can kill at Helms deep. 

Tolkien toys with the idea that Orcs are a kind of automata, mere extensions of Morgoths will; or at any rate that their wills have been totally overridden by Sauron. (They talk among themselves, in lower class English accents, obviously, but he speculates that they may merely be imitating the sounds of human speech without understanding what it means.) But the published texts seem clear that Orcs are people: they have agency and feelings and subjectivity. In origin, they are probably twisted or corrupted Elves. It's a fairly major theme in the mythos. Evil does not create, or have independent existence: it only twists and corrupts the good. Trolls are broken Ents, Orcs are broken Elves, Evil is a discordant counter melody which God will incorporate into the great cosmic concerto.

Unlike Satan, Sauron is capable of repentance: Morgoth himself may come back to the light at the very, very end of time. But there is no hint that there are, or could be, good orcs, or that orcs can be redeemed. Dead humans pass beyond the circles of the world into an unspecified but presumably Christian afterlife; dead elve's spirits find their way back to the Undying Lands and may become re-embodied. I suppose dead orcs remain in middle earth as demonic spirits.


Joseph Campbell, who is generally wrong, said that "mythology was psychology misread as biography". Ursula Le Guin, who is usually right, said that poetry and dragons speak "the language of the night" -- they follow dream logic rather than logical logic. 

Le Guin is thinking about the way in which characters can be both people in a story and also symbols: that at one level Gollum is a Hobbit who desires a powerful magical ring, and happens to become the guide of Frodo, another Hobbit who is tempted by the same magic but resists it. But looked at in another way, Gollum is Frodo's reflection or shadow: he represents what would happen if Frodo succumbed to the Ring. Gollum tripping over his silly feet and falling into a volcano is a dumb event which just happens to happen; but it also represents that fact that Frodo's Quest can only be completed by his dark side -- what Le Guin calls his Shadow. (Astonishingly, this is also the plot of a Wizard of Earthsea.)

C.S Lewis complained about Dickens handling of the character of Jingle in the Pickwick Papers: it is okay, he said, to ask the audience to laugh at a comic rotter; but to then show him facing the real-world consequences of his actions is not playing fair with the reader. (I have found this a problem in "serious" sit coms like Rev. or even Friends: the more believable characters become, the harder it is to laugh at their comic antics.)

If you like fantasy, you have to accept that it is not real. You make a tacit agreement to put certain hard questions on hold for the duration of the story. I think this is as true for meticulously constructed worlds like Middle-earth as it is for more whimsical constructs like the Discworld. Why does Gandalf, an immortal Maiar sent into the world to defeat Sauron, wear a pointy hat. Because he's a wizard. Why don't the Fellowship fly to Mordor on the back of an eagle? Because it's a story. (That was Tolkien's exact answer. The eagles are part of the machinery: what we would be more likely to call a plot device.) Why are Orcs evil? Because that's what Orc means. 

One of the things we like about High Fantasy -- and superhero comics, and cowboy stories -- is that the differences between good and evil are exaggerated. Black hats are crueller and more callous than any actual cattle rustler is like to have been; white hats are kinder and less corruptible than we can really expect from our police officers. This doesn't necessarily imply a simplistic morality: High Noon is quite a sophisticated little morality play exactly because Gary Cooper is so perfect and and Lee Van Cleef so nasty. Fantasy takes it a lot further: a Black Hat on a Black Hatstand in the Land of Mordor where the shadows come from leads and infinitely large posse of ugly deformed Uruk again armies of immortal, beautiful, incorruptible cavalry with the light that existed before the sun and the moon literally shining out of their arseholes.

People who don't really do fantasy very naturally see this as a vile colonial metaphor. And vile colonialists certainly sometimes interpret fantasy in that way. "We, the light shiny people have the right to kill you, the dark ugly people, because we are light and shiny and you are dark and ugly." But if you do like fantasy, you will probably understand that the elves represent us but that the orcs represent us to. Elves are what we want to be and Orcs are what we don't want to be. The eternal war between Light and Dark (which light wins but at great cost) represents an inner conflict which is happening in the hard of all human being at all times. It was the people who mindlessly vandalised trees that Tolkien was inclined to call Orcs.   

Okay, mosts people who read fantasy probably wouldn't say that at all. They would be more likely to say "Life is messy and complicated but the Lord of the Rings is fun. In real life there aren't Light Shiny People and Ugly Horrid People -- there are just people; but one of the nice things about Lord of the Rings is that its simpler than real life." Tolkien had no objection to people who called his books Escapist.

It is not okay for the Dark Lord's Minions to have feathers in their headdresses. It is not okay for them to have slitty eyes, hooked noses or for their bankers to have a Star of David mosaic on the floor. There has been lots and lots and lots of High Fantasy over the years and maybe we don't need any more of it. Realism has something to be said for it. Circe and Joffrey were arguably more hateful villains just because they were humans as opposed to shoggoths. The people who say that Dungeons & Dragons can't possibly have a racist racist subtext because African Americans don't really have yellow scaly skin, 1D4 hit points and treasure type A are insufferable twits. The Star Wars mythos was rather improved when the Sand People stopped being injuns and became an indigenous nation with its own culture and language.


Some people say that stories about Chosen Ones -- swords in stones and empty thrones awaiting sons of Adam and daughters of Eve and boys with funny marks on their foreheads -- are irredeemably aristocratic. Some people are born to rule, and some people, you and me, are born to chant "All Hail The Long Lost True King of the Northlands" in silly naarthen accents. And you can read the stories that way. And the fact that they can be read that way may make them dangerous stories. But wasn't Joseph Campbell on kind of the right track when he said that the point of Star Wars and the Sword in the Stone and Harry Potter is that we are all the Chosen Ones -- that the journey of the hero is a way of thinking about everyone's trajectory through life. 

We are all Anakin and Mordred and Tom Riddle unless we make a positive effort to be Luke or the Wart or Harry.

Richard Bach wrote a silly book called "Confessions of a Reluctant Messiah"; a sequel to the even sillier "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull." At the the time, I thought it might be saying "You, Andrew Rilstone, might turn out to be the second coming of Jesus. Wouldn't that be wild." I now, of course, understand that it was saying "Everyone is the second coming of Jesus; terms like son of God and Messiah are just ways of understanding what it is to be human." Which is very poor theology but quite good psychology.


Science fiction and fantasy are ways of reading, not ways of writing. If you speak The Language of the Night, you look at the Lord of the Rings and see a vast tapestry of symbols. If you speak The Language of the Day then you see a not very coherent or believable collection of facts. If you read the Lord of the Rings and ask "I am sure this poor Orc as its own feelings and point of few -- as it would if it existed in the real world" then you probably find that Lord of the Rings doesn't work for you. If you read the Lord of the Rings and say "In this world there are the forces of good and there are the force of evil and that's cool" you are probably on Tolkien's wave length. (If you read it and think "There are good white people and it is natural they should rule nasty dark people and that's true in the real world as well as in Tolkien's" then lots of people on Twitter agree with you.) But if you are uncomfortable with the idea of orcs, maybe you ought not to be developing a prequel to Lord of the Rings.

Science Fiction is when you write about Evil Races because you believe that some Races are really evil. Fantasy is when you write about Evil Races because you don't. Discuss. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Rings of Power Episode Five




https://www.patreon.com/posts/rings-of-power-72447052



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Thursday, September 22, 2022

Rings of Power Episode Four

 


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Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Rings of Power Episode Three

 




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Monday, September 19, 2022

What did you think of Rings of Power: Episode Two

 





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What Did You Think of the Rings of Power Episode One



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Sunday, September 18, 2022

Why I Am Hugely Looking Forward To The Rings Of Power

Tolkien is not a writer. Tolkien is a brand. Tolkien is a cultural phenomenon. Tolkien is short-hand for a type of literature which many of us like, or used to like, or like the idea of. Tolkien is not reducible to the words which Tolkien actually wrote. No writer is. 

Tolkien didn't create a text. Tolkien created a mass of texts, out of which can be extrapolated a thing called Middle-earth. Middle-earth is the creation; the exercise books filled with notes about the age of elvish puberty and transformations in the Quenya dative are raw materials.

So, in a funny way, is the Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings is a grand folly produced by an off duty lecturer in Anglo Saxon. The Lord of the Rings is the supreme work of pulp fiction, to be placed alongside Bob Howard and HP Lovecraft on hippy bookshelves in editions with (no one knows why) flamingos on the cover. It's a self referential geeky game on almost exactly the same level as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's the place where our deepest most spiritual emotions reside, our true spiritual home. It is a world more real than any other.

It's a collection of archetypes, the exact building blocks from which Western fantasy is built. Wizards with beards, dragons with piles of gold, caves with fiery demons at the bottom of them, forests full of elves, giant spiders, cannibal trolls who turn to stone when the sun comes up, wise eagles, riddling troglodytes, black riders, dark lords, wandering rangers, piggie-nosed orcs, wise talking trees, magic swords, magic rings, magic jewels. 

Some of this stuff was always archetypal: some of it is only archetypal because of what Tolkien did with it. 

So not, in fact, that far, far away from what George Lucas was originally trying to do in Star Wars. Lucas's saga offered us a single narrative space in which cowboy taverns, and World War II fighter pilots, and Lawrence of Arabia deserts and arthurian knights could all happily co-exist. 

I don't believe in the collective unconscious and the power of myth. I don't believe in phallic symbols or the Oedipus complex. But I do believe that Luke Skywalker's lightsaber and Bilbo's sword which glows when there are baddies in the room both came into my life at more or less the same moment. 

I think it was Neil Gaiman who said (in an introduction to the Bone Graphic Novel, which we really should talk about one of these days) that there are two kinds of readers of Moby Dick. Some of us enjoy the story of Ahab and call-me-Ishmael and Queequeg and the great big suicidal fishing expedition and find the inter-chapters a great bore. And some of us really like the mad essays about whales and whaling and think the main story is a bit long-drawn out and melodramatic. I myself shifted camp. The first couple of times I read it I struggled with the whaling material; but then I realised that what Melville is writing is a comedic anti-novel, along the lines of Tristram Shandy, and that the whole point of the inter-chapters is that they are completely barking mad. How I could have missed this when he takes quite so long to tell you that whales are definitely fish, I don't know. "Are you, reader, a loose whale or a fast whale" is one of the cleverest and craziest and most evocative passages of text ever written.

Yes, I am afraid I have read Moby Dick more than twice, but in my defence I have never read Tristram Shandy at all. I think I also preferred the inter-chapters in The Grapes of Wrath, since you asked.


Do you remember that annoying book club advertisement, which used to be on the back-page of every single colour supplement, which said that the English speaking world is divided into those who have read Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read it?

I think, on its own terms, that this is pretty obviously not true. There are at least four kinds of people in the English speaking world: the ones who have read Lord of the Rings, the ones who have read it more than once, the ones who are going to read it someday, and the ones who would not read it for a thousand pounds if it was the only book in the world. 

But the people who have actually read it can be split along the same lines as the people who have actually read Melville. Some of us are mostly in it for the story, and regard the historical passages as distractions or bores; and some of us want to know about Middle-earth and could frankly do without the Hobbits altogether.

It's all C.S Lewis's fault. Tolkien was happily doing his world-building, but Jack insisted on a story.


The Hobbit is story: but the Hobbit is only part of Middle-earth by a serendipitous accident. The absurd film of Tolkien's life which sank without trace a couple of years back envisaged it as the culmination of a life's work, the moment where the troubled Prof finally saw how he could embody his years of thinking into a single great work. (It's the same myth that Stan Lee propagates about himself: literature is dreamed up in a single flash and where the text ends up is always the place the Author intended it would go.)  

In fact, the book started life as not much more than a doodle. He wrote "in a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit" on the back of an envelope and extemporised a narrative from there. You can see, in the first pages of the Hobbit, that he is making stuff up as he went along. Hobbit sounds like Rabbit which suggests Hole, but the Hole turns into a kind of English country residence and the Hobbit into an English country gentleman. Nothing in the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit would be different if hobbits lived in houses rather than holes, unless you are a strict enough Freudian to think that hills and round doors are symbolic. 

Tolkien seems to have had a belief that writing was like discovering or uncovering or remembering. He felt as if there was an already-existing story and he had to find out what it was. I doubt that he literally believed that, but it seems to have been how his writing process functioned.


Lots of writers have a tendency to turn all their stories into one big story, whether it is P.G Wodehouse sending friends of Bertie Wooster off to Blandings, or Isaac Asimov deciding that his earth Empire stories, his Foundation stories and his Robot stories should culminate in a book called God Emperor of Foundation and Robots. [Check this. Ed.] When C.S Lewis challenged Tolkien to write a story about time travel, the mythical Atlantis that his astral travellers visited almost inevitably became part of a Second Age of the world he had been imagining since before the Great War. Tolkien, who definitely hated allegory and would never ever have written one, told a story about a little painter named Niggle who kept finding that his smaller paintings were really part of one enormous work of art. So of course the adventures of the funny little hole dwelling Englishman intersected with the legends of Beren and Luthien and Sauron and Earendel and the nauglamir. And of course, that meant that there was suddenly a race of diddymen in his mythology. And that meant that there was a point in imaginary space and imaginary time from whose vantage point the great big mythology could be seen. 


It is a truism that the Lord of the Rings is not a sequel to the Hobbit, but a sequel to the Silmarillion. It's about the aftermath of the defeat of Melkor and the final departure of the Elves. It lets us see Arda from the point of view of the little people, and lets us hear the legends as the little people heard them. You could say that it was a distraction: that the Lord of the Rings prevented Tolkien from completing his life's work. The invention of Hobbits pretty much guaranteed that the Silmarillion would never be anything other than a pile of contradictory notes. Or you could say that if he hadn't wasted his time on excessive world building he might have written five more trilogies, as good or better than Lord of the Rings. It depends which side of the line you are on. 

Essays or chapters? World or story? Text or legendarium? Is your gaze fixed on Middle-earth, or on Bilbo and Frodo and Aragorn and Legolas? And how cross are you with people on the other side of the line? 


I loved the Hobbit because it was a story about Adventure with a capital A. I loved the Lord of the Rings because it was Dungeons & Dragons with two big Ds. (I also loved Dungeons & Dragons because it was like Lord of the Rings: it's complicated.) But as soon as I managed to get to the end of it, my heart was given to the Silmarillion. 


History never comes to an end, whatever Mr Fukuyama may have said. Events continue to happen in Middle-earth after Sam shuts the door and says "We'll I'm back". But Tolkien came to think that was the where the story finished. He started a novel set in Minas Tirith at the time of Aragorn's son, but he never got beyond the first chapter. He wrote an epilogue, which the publishers overruled: I can't decide if they were right or not. The appendices tell us about the deaths of Merry and Pippin and Aragorn and how Sam and Legolas and maybe even Gimli came to the undying lands. And in a way the story carries on down to our age, the Sixth or the Seventh or the Eighth Age. The Red Book survived into modern times. Hobbits still exist, but have dwindled in number and hide from the big people. Elves have diminished; either physically, into little people, or spiritually, so they appear as ethereal ghosts, but they are still around. The ultimate viewpoint of Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale England where spiritual elf-folk and elusive little people can sometimes still be encountered. The original point of the Lost Tales was that Tol Eressea, the Lonely Isle, the place between the Undying Lands and Middle-earth, was named (stop me if you've heard this before) England. There was even going to be a kind of Ragnorak, a very final story in which Turin slays Melkor (who had more cause?) and the Silmarils are returned to Yavana and the Two Trees are restored. 

 Oh, Mr Frodo, Sir, don't the great tales ever end? 


The Silmarillion is a difficult book of course. It is dense and has lots of names in it and you pretty much have to pay attention to the maps and the family tree. But the big problem with the book is that it is history shaped. It may see history itself as a story, but it's a story about the rise and fall of cities and empires and continents, of the sundering of tribes and generational feuds. There are characters, but they blow horns and fight battles and go on quests and kill dragons and inadvertently marry their sisters. They they never stop to skin rabbits or hunt for potatoes or salvage snout from sieges. The tale of Beren is a fine tale, but Beren is not a character. We meet him for a while, and then step back and see where he fits into the great music of history. 

C.S Lewis admired Olaf Stapleton, although he also accused him of devil-worship. I don't know if Tolkien ever read him. There are no characters in Last and First Men: if the book has a plot its the plot of the human race expanding into space and dying out on (if I remember correctly) Pluto. 

Any fantasy story has an implicit history; but it is pretty rare for the shape of that history to be the main object of our aesthetic pleasure. Star Wars has a history: it goes "There was a good republic; it was supplanted by the evil empire, which was in turn defeated by a rebellion." Chosen ones are prophesied and corrupted and babies are fostered with unknowing farmers and many, many wars are fought, but you can't really step backwards and see the shape because there isn't one. The TV universe has taken an interest in weaving the various strands together. It expects us to care that the death Godfather Slug leaves a power vacuum that can be killed by a former bounty hunter; and to think that "who rescued Baby Yoda when Anakin killed the Younglings?" is a good question: but it's still basically a soap opera. It is set in the middle of the story, in an eternal present, asking relentlessly what will happen next. 

The history of Middle-earth is a structure: big enough to get lost in, but small enough to hold in your head. There is more to it than "The Empire Rises; the Empire Falls" but less to it than the real world. It doesn't get caught up in the  infinite, specific, complicated, mass of facts that make up real history.

That may be why people with disgusting political beliefs like it so much. They often believe that history has a simple pattern, a perceptible structure which they can see and you can't. They often think they know the ending. 


We've all heard of Atlantis: but it's just an idea. It was an island. It sank. Possibly it sank because it did a bad thing. I am afraid that for most of us it is a sunken city where Mermaids or King Neptune live. For many of us it's primarily the home of Aquaman or Prince Namor. Tolkien takes the idea and makes it a thing; a node in his grand narrative. We see the fathers of men being given Numenor as a gift from the gods; we see Numenor as a great and beautiful land; we see it becoming corrupt; we see it sinking into the sea. And we see Faramir revering it as part of sacred history. First, Gondolin is a city that will exist in a prophetic future; then it is a hidden city where great events transpire; then it is besieged and destroyed; finally it is the legendary land where Bilbo's glowy sword was forged.


So. A TV series based on the appendices to Lord of the Rings, whose primary audience must necessarily be people who have never read them. A TV series which must necessarily evoke the ambience of Peter Jackson's brilliant flawed sophomoric childish vulgar wonderful self parodic movies. A TV series too expensive to fail. A TV series which tries to capture the fluttery moth of Tolkien's history in the net of soap opera. A TV series which serves up a second helping of Elves and Dragons and Hobbits and Wizards and Lost Cities and Mysterious Forests and Magic Rings and Magic Swords -- the whole Dungeons and Dragons patchwork. 

What can possibly go wrong?




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 I mentioned previously that I perfectly understand how people can be sad when a performer or a celebrity they admire dies, even if they have never met them. I have to say that in this case I am not so much sad as angry. 

Can I, In Fact, Be Arsed To Watch The Rings of Power?


I have started this article literally five times. Each time it has got bogged down in the same argument that I've had with myself twenty times before. You know how it goes. 

It wouldn't necessarily have been racist to leave Edward Colston where he was; but fishing him out of the river and putting him back on his plinth would be a huge Alan-Moorish magical act in support of white supremacism. Blackface Morris dancing was a harmless and silly tradition until people with no particular interest in folk dance started to say that the Morris was to the Indigenous White Race as the Sun Dance is to the Sioux people and that they were going to BOYCOTT any festival where the dancers painted themselves green instead. (A very intelligent teenager, when I tried to Teach Them The Controversy said "There wouldn't have been much point in using black paint as a disguise and then sewing bells into their costumes, would there?") Rule Britannia was a daft old fashioned tune that came at the end of a medley of nineteenth century sea songs, until it became an inalienable symbol of our very justifiable pride in having conquered the world (why do people do our history down? why do they consider it NECESSARY) at which point the song, and probably the whole concert, had to go away.

Very conveniently, history has provided me with a new example. If every other house on my street had placed a picture of the Queen in the window, then not having a picture of the Queen in my window would be a sign that I was a fanatical, cynical republican. If no other house had a picture of the queen in the window, then putting a picture of the Queen in the window would signify that I was an extreme, sentimental royalist. I slightly regret that the silly American tradition of Halloween has replaced the slightly mad English tradition of Bonfire Night, but as a matter of fact it has: so not having a bag of sweets to share with passing urchins would mark me out as a grumpy old sour puss, or at any rate one of those evangelical Christians who take everything slightly too seriously. I did, in fact, join in with the clap for carers ritual, and a very quiet street celebration of the V.E day anniversary during the Plague Year. I would not have joined in a Clap For Boris, even if every body else did.

We inhabit a universe of signs. I think that is probably what Plato and Jack Kirby and Carl Jung were trying to teach us, and what Richard Dawkins will never understand. Things signify what they have come to signify. I am not twelve: I do not giggle if an old song or comic book uses the word "gay" to mean happy, joyful, or brightly coloured. But neither am I a Daily Telegraph reader, I do not pretend that I think that the people with rainbow flags have "a deep pleasure, self-regard or satisfaction" in the fact that they are "joyful and brightly coloured". (Although some of them arguably do, come to think of it.)


Does anyone remember fanzines? Do you remember standing by photocopiers with bags of five pee pieces? Do you remember begging parents who worked in offices to let you use the photocopier after work, promising to pay for the ink out of your paper-round money? Letraset and pritt stick? The taste of postage stamps after you had licked twenty stamps, and standing behind a stand at conventions, joyful if you sold even one copy? Gesneter machines you had to crank? Drawing on wax stencils with special sharp pens (which never, ever worked).

I don't know if Dungeons & Dragons and Doctor Who and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Diplomacy and En Garde brought on a particular kind of madness that Jane Austen and Agatha Christie and Coronation Street and Chess and Backgammon never did; or if there are so many Chess players and soap opera watchers and Whodunnit readers that "finding other people who like what you do" becomes a hobby in its own right. Heterosexuals in the 1950s didn't make up funny cants and code words to identify themselves to each other, so far as I know.

I remember a very circumspect essay in an old DWAS fanzine, that said that it didn't really matter that Douglas Adams and this new guy Tom Baker had ruined the programme forever, because Doctor Who wasn't about the programme: it was an excuse to get together, write fanfic, make models, wear costumes, draw artwork. A Doctor Who convention in the 1970s was  rather like a Puffin Club exhibition, and I am well aware how that sounds. More space was taken up with stuff that the fans had made and written than with actual props from the show.

But that means texts go round and round in circles and disappear up their own fandoms. Unearthly Child is not, for me, a very old piece of TV, and I am slightly resentful if that is what it is for you. Unearthly Child is sitting in (I think) Imperial College London, almost the first time you have travelled on a tube train without your parents. We made a deal that I would be allowed to go to the convention by myself, but my Mum and my Baby Sister would have a day in London and pick me up when it was over, so I would not have to brave the mean streets of South Ken by myself. For other people it may even still be the first show that the BBC showed after the 24 hours of enforced mourning after a very terrible event in Dallas, Texas. 

Someone reading this doesn't know what Unearthly Child is, which kind of proves my point. We all have secret code phrases. Detective Comics 27. John 3:16. Child 10/Roud 8.


I once heard an Actor say that Hamlet is not a play: it is a cultural discussion that the west has been having for four hundred years. You kind of see the point. If you go to see Hamlet, you are going to see this particular Hamlet, and you want to know how this particular Hamlet answers questions about the text. Why does this version of the Prince delay, does this Prince really go mad; why did this version of the Queen marry so quickly after the King's death? Every production is in dialogue with every other production and this is true even if you are seeing the play for the first time. And each play is also the protrusion into our dimension of a vast and incomprehensible mass of academic papers, and that is true even if the audience and the producer don't read the Times Literary Supplement. Hamlet matters. Hamlet is a living thing, not a dead facsimile in an academic library. Doubtless the particular collection of words that editors have created out of the folios and the quartos and the pirated prompt copies have objective qualities that have allowed Hamlet to become a text which matters. But it is perfectly possible to imagine a world where a different play had been endowed with that significance. Or where the Legitimate Theatre didn't exist at all.

There was an academic who may have been called Stanley Fish who wrote a clever book about Paradise Lost which may have been called Surprised by Sin which argued that the poem took shape in the subjectivity of the reader. People sometimes say that it is a bit of a problem that Milton's Satan is so heroic and Milton's God is such a thug. Fish, replies, in effect: "You don't say? In a book about rebellion, sin, and the fall, you end up hating God and liking the Devil? Might that not possibly be the whole entire point?" He says it over several hundred pages and I suppose I should read it one day. I suppose I should read Paradise Lost, come to that.

C.S Lewis, incidentally, was both duller and righter when he said that people who say they don't like Milton's God really mean that they don't like God. Devout atheist critic William Empson felt he'd hit the nail on the head.

I believe that Fish also said that he didn't think that there was such a thing as Paradise Lost, or at any rate, that when people talked about paying attention to the actual text, he didn't understand what they meant. It is, of course, an excellent strategy, if you are very clever, to pretend not to understand something which everyone else thinks is very simple and obvious. But one sees what he is getting at. No book. No thing. Just lots of different subjective impressions of the thing; the intersection of all the things which people have said about the thing over the centuries.

I believe there has been an Old School Revival and I believe that some people are producing paper fanzines again. I understand that the OSR has also become in some circles a Colstonian Fetish, there being a suspicion that people who wish that Dungeons & Dragons was more like it was in the 1970s wish that everything else was more like it was in the 1970s as well. But there is no longer any particular need for them to exist. Blogging and Social Meejah and the Tick Tock mean that we are all in contact with ever other like mind person at every moment. There is no longer any need to write a stiff letter to the BBC about Talons of Weng Chiang or submit your review of Deadly Assassin for consideration to the editor of TARDIS magazine, or even to ask Mum to type your review on her manual typewriter and staple it together in SCARF MONTHLY (circulation: 10). You just tweet it.

Do not, please God, confuse "is" with "ought". It might be better if every thought that proceedeth out of the mind of the geek was not instantly transmissible to every mobile phone in the Western hemisphere. It might be better if we made friends with people over the garden fence. It might be better if going to the movies involved putting on your smart clothes and buying pop corn and watching Pathe News and Donald Duck. It might be better if the BBC still closed down at six o clock so all the mummies and daddies could put their children to bed. We are precisely where we are.


I would not in principle, have a problem with a person who said that they were fine with a black actor playing James Bond, a black actor playing Batman, a black actor playing Superman, a black actor playing the Human Torch, a black actor playing Doctor Who, a black actor playing Hamlet, a black actor playing Jesus and a black actor playing Othello, but that the Little Mermaid was a special case and there is some particular reason why Mermaids needed to be caucasian. I would not necessarily agree, but I would not automatically assume that the person had bad motives. But when the same people object to black Batmen, black Supermen, black Human Torches, black Doctors Who, black Hamlets, black Jesi and black Othellos then one starts to suspect that their issue is not with canonicity and fidelity to the original text (which does not exist) but with black people. Don't change an existing character, they say, make up a new character! And when someone makes up a new character, they say that the whole idea of a brand new female Pakistani New York super-heroine is woke and pandering and box ticking. Cast a black man as Hamlet, and they will howl that there weren't any Africans in medieval Denmark; cast a black man as Othello and they will say that great white actors are now BANNED from this role and that from now on only Jews will be allowed to play Shylock and only murderers will be allowed to play Macbeth. 

George Takei recently came right out and said what everyone already knew: that the word "woke" now simply means "has black representation".

Actually, I would go a lot further. It's a single word that embodies a dangerous conspiracy theory: to call a TV show "woke" is to simultaneously say that it has black people in it, AND to say that unknown operators are mandating the casting of ethnic minorities for sinister political reasons. It means that "they" have forced "an agenda" on the text. We are very often told that non-white, or non-straight, or indeed non-male fictional characters only exist because of an arcane process called Box Ticking. They are only there because some bureaucratic paperwork requires them to be there.

Woke in fact means nothing more or less than n*****-lover; and people who use the former word should be treated with the same contempt as people who use the latter.


I admit that I would have been conflicted in any case. On the one hand, making up new stories set in Tolkien's imaginary time line doesn't seem any sillier than making up stories about Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley; or Richard Sharp and the Duke of Wellington. A particular piece of historical fiction may be sensible or silly, done well or done badly, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and War and Peace both seem legitimate imaginative enterprises. You could research the life of a definitely real pioneer and politician named David Crocket, or you could tell a rip-roaring and ever so slightly racist cowboy story about a fella who killed him a bear when he was only three. Photocopier or not, I'm a recovering role-player: tell me that Hobbits used to live with the dwarves near the mountains and then migrated through toil and hardship to the Shire, and my dungeon master brain says "Who are the player characters; where is the map; I want to play that?"

I mean, come on Tollers: Elendil escapes from Numenor before it sank beneath the waves saving a seedling of the sacred tree and and the seven seeing stones. That's not a paragraph, that's a trilogy.

On the other hand, I am concerned about taking the inchoate ambience that Tolkien creates, the vast distances of time looking back into the Second Age and the Elder Days and crystallising them into particular actors and particular stories. An actor playing Gil Galad will thereafter always to some extent be Gil Galad in our imagination, and that will to some extent spoil Bilbo's translation of the old poem about the elven king of whom the harpers sadly sing, because part of the point of that poem is that we its telling a story we don't know and wish we did.

On the third hand, official fan fiction is going to happen sooner or later: whether a TV show or a licensed novel. Control of Tolkien's estate was always going to pass from his children to his grandchildren and great grandchildren and they are not going to be purists in the way Christopher was: and even if they were, texts eventually go out of copyright.

I don't know what Tolkien would have thought about a TV series based on the appendices to Lord of the Rings. I think he would have been pleased that fifty years after his death people were reading them and caring about them; I don't think it is possible that he would have agreed with every point of interpretation that a secondary story teller made up; we know that he would have accepted that a cinema adaptation has to be cinematic. I don't think he would have even understood what computer generated animation meant. Christopher Tolkien thinks that he would not have approved of the published Silmarillion, which is based on his sons scholarly conjectures about how he would have assembled the text. I don't know what Jane Austen would have thought of Pride and Prejudice With Zombies. I don't know if you could have explained it to her. 

"Two hundred years in the future your characters will still be so famous, and so beloved, that a witty writer will write a comical burlesque in which he imagines them embroiled in a shocking gothic romance." 

"Upon my soul, what fun."

But I am pretty sure that what a dead author, or anyone else would have thought is pretty irrelevant; and I am absolutely sure that bad adaptations of their books do not impede their journey through the afterlife, however much people like to imagine them "turning in their graves". I believe that some right wing American pundits think that you should interpret the text of the Constitution based on what the founding fathers would have said. 

"Yesterday" said C.S Lewis "I stopped myself only in time from saying about some trifle 'Joy wouldn't have liked that.' This is unfair to the others. I should soon be using 'what Joy would have liked' as an instrument of domestic tyranny; with her supposed likes and dislikes becoming a thinner and thinner disguise for my own."


There is a discussion to be had about ethnicity in Middle-earth. We know that there is a land in the South where you could find elephants and dark skinned people. The first official Tolkien roleplaying games included a map of the whole of Middle-Earth, even the bits Tolkien never wrote about and inferred an Africa-shaped land sticking out of the bottom of the map. Years later Christopher Tolkien reproduced a sketch map of the whole world drawn by his father, it turned out that Iron Crown Enterprises guess was pretty much on the beam. So either some accelerated process of evolution changed Men's secondary characteristics after they had migrated to the South; or else some of the Second Children of Illuvator were black to begin with. (Unless Africa-analog only came into existence after the world became round; and Illuvator created new darker skinned humans to populate it? But the idea of just creating new beings doesn't seem to fit in at all well with the idea of the ainulindale.) Hobbits are a sub-class of men, so if there were non-white humans there were non-white hobbits, and if not, not. 

Tolkien was a white English dude, and represents himself as quite freely translating an ancient text. Hobbits didn't really speak English, and certainly not English with regional accents, and they didn't really have umbrellas and post offices. A white English dude naturally chose to represent the halflings as white and English, but if the Red Book and been discovered by a Scotsmen or an Indian, it might have been very different indeed.

A couple of years back the BBC did a quite good adaptation of Les Miserables with all the songs removed. Some people affected to be confused that Gavroche and Javert were played by not-white actors. No-one was at all confused that they were speaking English, with English accents, and that Thernadier sounded cockney. TV is an illusion; an exercise in the imagination. The map is not the territory. 

Gender is a bit more complicated. Tolkien was certainly a catholic, and certainly had traditional catholic views. (He felt that C.S Lewis's views on Christian marriage were a good deal too liberal, and actually got the better of the argument.) A lot of people have pointed to his description of the Valar (the secondary gods of Middle-earth) as implying a kind of trans-friendly outlook, although I don't think it really does. (He says that bodies are to the gods as clothes are to humans: a human is not necessarily male because they are wearing pants; a god is not necessarily male because he is wearing a male body.) And he is very clear that Elves only really do sex for procreation: and that once they have made enough babies, they mainly lose interest in it. But that said it is reasonable to ask how a Catholic academic in the 1940s would have described the relationship between, say, two homosexual servicemen and the answer is "exactly as he describes the relationship between Frodo and Sam. 

Once you claim that your book is a translation or a description of real events, you destabilise the text; you let us ask what is "really" going on.
 

But now is not the time to have that interesting discussion. Now is the time when white supremacist keyboard warriors tell me, directly, that if an actor would not be appropriate in a film of Beowulf, they are not appropriate in Tolkien, and if I cannot see that I obviously have never read Lord of the Rings. (I rather flounced out of the Facebook C.S Lewis group at this point.) Now is the time when a tie-in edition of Lord of the Rings triggers a cohort of fragile white snowflakes to say "We hates you forever, precious, the professor is turning in his grave." Now is the time when the Lord of the Rings is an accessory for a certain kind of weirdo white nativist activism. 

There was another story about a Ring. It became an accessory for another group of Fascists. They ruined Wagner for fifty years; for some people they ruined it forever. Tolkien called Hitler a bloody ignoramus and a blasphemous tyrant; but there was genuinely something in the Ring Cycle that allowed it to be appropriated by the Nazis. Maybe there is something in Lord of the Rings which allows it to be appropriated by born-and-bred kith-and-kin white nativists.

So, anyway: that's the article I've been trying to write. The Rings of Power has been subsumed into the backlash and the backlash against the backlash to the point where it is debatable whether the TV series exists.

Stewart Heritage made the point in slightly fewer words in an essay in the Guardian:

So here we are. It is now impossible to remain neutral about The Little Mermaid. You are either opposed to the idea that a mermaid might not necessarily always be white or excited to watch it out of principle because you don’t want the racists to win. It’s one or the other. The lines have been drawn, and that means the film won’t be properly evaluated on its merits until all the noise has died down, which won’t happen until long after its release.

So here we are. I ought to be looking forward to this stuff, throwing myself into reviews and critiques. But I haven't summonsed up the strength yet. The fascists have sucked all the joy out of it. Of course they have. That's their job. 

I notice that Disney+ has put up three seasons of Gargoyles. Maybe I'll watch that instead.





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Thursday, September 15, 2022

Three Thousand Years of Longing

Andrew's Arts Diary: Three Thousand Years of Longing: The lovely Bristol Everyman has added a fourth cinema. It's very small (seats about thirty five) but has flowery sofas and a very decent...

I Know I Said I Wasn't Going To Do This...

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
W.H Auden



One person on my street has hung, weirdly, a black union jack outside their house. Maybe they are royalists. Maybe they are far-right nutters. Maybe they were quite fond of the Queen personally. Maybe they just really like flags. (They may have been the same people who hung a Ukrainian flag outside their house.) No-one else has put out any symbols. The pubs are full of people drinking and making a noise. Talk of a national mood is premature. 

I don't have any problem with people feeling sad when a famous person who they like died. I am sure I would be sad if Bob Dylan died. Tom Baker, who I actually met once, is fortunately immortal, so the question doesn't arise.

When an artist dies, you are sad about the loss of their art. I have been sad recently when some of the big folkies have passed away. I had seen Swarbs and Norma Watterson and Roy Bailley perform live, and even spoken to them, if only to say "Thank you for a great set" and "Would you mind signing that", so I suppose I can take it ever so slightly personally. The Tolkien society used to lay a wreath on The Professor's grave, read out a passage from one of his books, and sing the Namarie (the elvish song of farewell.)  A little affected, of course, but a way of honouring a great man's work. Some people got a bit emotional, but some people in the Tolkien society got a bit emotional about everything.

Someone said that being a fan means "not only being into something, but being into being into it." Similarly, being sentimental means being sad about something and also being sad about being sad about it. Being sentimental can be unhealthy. Quite large numbers of people become sentimental when they read in the newspapers about some child on a life support machine who has no chance of ever coming round. This leads some of them to make physical threats against doctors or to demand that a clinically dead person is dragged half way round the world at great expense to be treated by some medical quack. But there is nothing terribly wrong with us all roaring out another chorus of Rolling Home (FREE TOAST!) at Roy's memorial concert. 

Tomorrow Belongs To Me and Edelweiss are both equally sentimental songs.

Some years ago, a lot of people converged on the Vatican to touch or see the body of a former Pope whose body was being re-interred prior to Beatification. Some of us Prods thought that was a bit odd. Some of the nicer Papists explained that it wasn't really that much different from wanting to go and lay flowers on a beloved relative's grave. But for some Catholics, at least, a Saint's remains have magical properties: touching a finger bone or a lock of hair has, for them, some spiritual or supernatural effect. Some Protestants think this is altogether a bit too much like idol worship. (Protestants are very clear that just because something is the body of Christ it by no means follows that it is actually the body of Christ.)

But doesn't everyone believe in Holy Relics? I wrote about my pilgrimage to Liverpool to see reconstructions of places very much like the ones where John Lennon might have lived and performed.  People will queue up to see the actual toy bear that the actual Christopher Robin actually played with in the 1920s, currently on display in the New York library. When the Victoria and Albert museum included an identical, and much better preserved, Steiff bear from the exact same period, hardly anyone even noticed it. Phillip K Dick ponders the fact that even if you had a matter replication device which could produce a replica of the pen which signed the Declaration of Independence, accurate to sub-atomic detail, it still wouldn't be the pen which signed the Declaration of Independence.

It isn't Winnie the Pooh we are thinking of now, but a quite different bear. The connection between Paddington and the Queen in the public mind had already gone further than one would wish: in some circles it has reached the point of confusion, if not identification.

I must admit that I never liked Paddington as much as Mary Plane and I never liked Mary Plane as much as Pooh. I even slightly resented Paddington because his TV show was kind of a replacement for my once-beloved no-longer-cherished Wombles.

It would be very sensible to say that The Queen was a Good Sport, and that it's not every dignified old lady who would have agreed to (and apparently enjoyed) doing a skit with a cartoon character on an important state occasion. I suppose the more important you are the more you can get away with that kind of thing: the venerable old Headmaster can get away with playing Widow Twanky much more than the shy student geography teacher.

But we've started playing a game in which we pretend that the Queen was really Friendly With Bears and really carried marmalade sandwiches in her handbag and Paddington really thanked her for her years of being Queen. And that actually fits the mood quite well. Elizabeth Windsor might very well have been a privileged toff; she may very well have been a "county" lady who would have been happy with her horses, dogs, and society balls. But The Queen was, for most of us, at most times, ontologically indistinguishable from a children's picture book character.

I think the closest analogy is with Stan Lee. Seriously. A very old man who nearly everyone had a great deal of affection for at a personal level. A corporate symbol who had been playing a role for very nearly seventy years, so no-one could say where the man finished and the character started. A symbol of personal nostalgia linking us back to the comics we first liked when we were kiddies. The thing which allowed us to believe that the Marvel Comics of 2020 had continuity with the Marvel comics of 1963 and even 1941. A blank symbol, whose actual input into the thing he symbolised was quite limited. A massively contested and compromised figure, who was implicated in the very many bad things Marvel Comics had done, and may have been personally responsible for some of them. You could't be a Marvel comics reader -- or even a comics reader -- and not feel that his passing was a significant moment of transition. And once it had sunk in, the discourse, oh, the discourse! If you condemned his legacy, then you had no business saying he was nice man. Since he was a nice man, you have no business condemning his legacy. The existence of Magic Grandpa spreads pixie dust over the whole enterprise. The fact that we loved the enterprise bestows an aura of sanctity on Magic Grandpa. 

The company which now owns Marvel Comics tried the same trick with their own avuncular founder, but it is much harder to argue plausibly that Walt Disney was ever a particularly nice man.

Granted, I would not have queued for thirty hours to file past Stan Lee's coffin. But very many people did queue up for a very long time to allow him to write his name on a piece of paper.

I suppose that very many of the people in the queue are in the queue because the Queen was a nice old lady to whom they feel genuine affection. 

I suppose that very many people in the queue are in the queue because monarchy personifies nationality and they do love their country with a love that asks no questions and a love that stands the test. I suppose that very many people in the queue are in the queue because the queen symbolises the age of empire when the black man did not have the whip hand white man, and because they believe that Brexit and the war against woke will return us to that glorious never-never-land when the sun never set etc etc etc. And I suppose that very, very many people in the queue are in the queue because lots of other people are in the queue, and it seems the Thing To Do. 

What there is not is a National Mood. It is a smallish step from saying that the whole country is heartbroken to saying that no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge; that those of us who are not heartbroken are not part of "the country". And a small jump from there to storming the capital because anyone who failed to vote for the god-king was not a real American.



Monday, September 12, 2022

Andrew's Arts Diary: Nope

Andrew's Arts Diary: Nope: We are halfway through Nope before we find out what kind of a movie we are watching. So it would probably be a little cruel to say too much ...

Friday, September 09, 2022

Round and Round and Round

"Heard anything about a brown streak across the Welsh coast" asks one Prof Bargh in Chapter 2 of Hugh Walters' Terror by Satellite?

A conference is quickly called. "The truth of the matter was that no one had a clue as to what had caused the mysterious brown streak, and for weeks scientists from Liverpool and other Universities speculated on its origin."

"If Professor Bargh is right" they conclude "There is only one explanation for these brown streaks..."

As the novel proceeds, everything becomes more ominous. In Chapter 11, "observers are watching and waiting for the appearance of the ominous brown streaks" and by Chapter 14 "the brown streaks are growing ominously." The future of civilisation is, apparently, once again, at stake.

Sofa-buddy sometimes refers to the Underwear Theory of English literature. Broadly speaking: if you ignore a plot problem, you can carry on ignoring it; but once you stop ignoring it, you have to take it into account for ever. As long as Mrs Blyton doesn't mention whether the Famous Five change their underwear during their interminable camping holidays the reader doesn't need to worry about it either. Maybe this is the kind of world where no-one sweats or gets dirty. But once one of the characters notices that they are all too smelly to go and replenish their supplies in the local ginger beer emporium, this has to be born in mind. All future exploits have to include laundry trips and bath times. Narrative worms can never be returned to literary cans.

Hugh Walters is fairly interested in the nuts and bolts of space travel. He worries about how uncomfortable multiple G acceleration would be; and points out that astronauts would need to suck water out of toothpaste tubes. On Chris's first missions, which only lasted hours or days, he had tubes of glucose for sustenance: in later books Walters talks about food tubes and  and meat tablets.

The idea of food tablets is a good old science fiction trope. I suppose the idea is that the worst effects of starvation could be staved off with vitamin pills; although presumably you would have to consume a certain amount of bulk and roughage as well? It's a good enough way of signifying "sciencey-ness"; a social activity like eating reduced to the status of a medical procedure. And the idea of tiny little pills being treated as if they were meals is a little bit funny. I recall a skit on Basil Brush in which "dinner" consisted of a brown pill (roast beef) a white pill (potatoes) and a green pill (cabbage). Mr Roy proceeded to spray the pills with an aerosole can. "What's that?" "Gravy." The Very Early Tardis had a food machine that produced mars-bar shaped blocks which contained all the nutrients one needed to survive, but also synthesised the taste of a meal. Ian complains that the eggs in his eggs-and-bacon bar aren't crisp enough. In Scotland, a kind of dry fudge is referred to as "tablet", so possibly "meat tablet" means "candy bar" rather than "pill".

Obviously, these are children's books, so there cannot be the slightest suggestion of sex, although Whiskers does manage to produce two children off screen. And presumably, blokes who have been in boarding schools and the army don't worry too much about modesty around other blokes, although Chris does step into a different room to try on his space underwear. And we are warned (in volume eight) that vomiting inside a space ship is "not done". But, despite prolonged periods of our heroes being shut up in very small spaces together, we never hear one word about other bodily functions. We are not told if spaceships have a "head", if they have onboard water recycling plants, and certainly nothing about space-potties or space-nappies in their space suits. It isn't even suggested that if you live off space-pills you don't need to go, which wouldn't work but would show that we'd noticed the problem.

Most discussions of space travel regard this subjects as a source of endless fascination. Tom Hanks is asked about it in a Apollo 13, and the engineer has to field a question from school children in Star Trek Enterprise. A recent episode of The Unbelievable Truth (a comedy panel show) required a contestant to give a short talk on the subject of Space Travel, and fully half the jokes were about Zero G turds and depositing urine into space. I assume that a prolonged space voyage would be more like a camping holiday or a music festival: things that would be acutely embarrassing in normal life temporarily cease to matter very much. Walters must be aware of the question, but he doesn't mention it, and doesn't mention that he doesn't mention it.

Now, I am not going to talk about Freud and the return of the repressed. But we all know how difficult it is to not think of a monkey. We all remember how, having resolved not to do so, Basil Fawlty was unable to mention anything apart from the war. Although there exist many hundreds of subjects for erudite conversation there are some men who in the presence of a cripple can speak of nothing but feet. But in Terror by Satellite, the human race is once again going to be wiped out, and it one of our heroes is once again going to do a far far better thing than he has ever done to save it. But this time the threat is not alien ghosts, or grey goo, or non-specific radiation. This time it is an agricultural blight. Great swathes of the earth's farmland are being rendered sterile. And Walters cannot resist repeatedly describing the catastrophe as mysterious ominous brown streaks.

What has happened is this. Last year, in Destination: Mars, we were warned that Hendricks, one of the commanders of UNEXAs main observatory satellite was not a particular nice man. In this volume, it transpires that he is an actual baddie. He has, without anyone on his space-wheel finding out, built a machine which "funnels cosmic rays into a concentrated beam". This is the real cause of the skid-marks: as the satellite orbits, the ray burns a brown girdle round the earth. The soil is rendered permanently infertile, so everyone is going to starve to death very soon indeed. 

Hendricks has a very clear and realistic motivation for this mayhem. 

"Since the dawn of history the world has muddled along under many governments. Only if the whole Earth is united under a single direction can its full possibilities be realised!" 

So, naturally, he is going to blackmail the human race. 

"Either accept my ultimate authority or be destroyed. If they refuse to accept me, I shall not hesitate to destroy the earth!" 

In Blast Of At Woomera the bad guy was definitely a commie and definitely a traitor, but we were told that he had had an unhappy childhood and was well meaning but misguided. But in Terror By Satellite it is a truth universally accepted that a mad scientist in possession of a death ray would want to destroy the world. He does have a nice line in ranting. 

"Miserable creature! Who are you to question my decisions and order? I will not allow such a worthless person to interfere in my great plan!" 

A contemporary review pointed out that a hundred years previously he would probably have been turning old ladies out of their cottages.

One wishes that someone from the UN had pointed out that they were already in the business of getting the different governments to cooperate, and that this had so far resulted in a base on the moon, contact with Martians, and a satellite. Or they could have just told him that he could rule the world if he liked and then carried on as before. As a child, I think I took all this for granted and enjoyed the heroics and the hardware. As a grown up, I can take moderate pleasure from the tropes: supervillain with orbiting death ray, forsooth. But it is a bit of a shame that Walters, who started out wanting to produce educational realistic science fiction with a capital science has shifted so speedily into pulp space opera.

Nothing goes out of date as quickly as the future. One of the delights of Dan Dare is that the Space Fleet is pretty much indistinguishable from the wartime RAF, and that flying cars are quite clearly 1950s flying cars. Star Trek: The Next Generation already feels delightfully retro-1980s. The same thing is true of historical fiction: doubtless the people of a thousand years ago perceived the world differently from us: they lived inside a different cosmology, followed a different morality, and didn't think Talons of Weng Chiang was at all racist. And a clever novelist might convey some of that. But very often we just want to play at knights in armour: characters with pretty much modern attitudes in an historical theme park. 

If my chronology is right, Terror by Satellite takes place around 1970. (It was published in '64 and presumably written in '63: Cape Kennedy is still called Cape Canaveral.) But the central plot device is so much of its time that I am tempted to call it quaint.

Tony Hale is our viewpoint character. Chris Godfrey is a rather distant, important figure who gives important lectures in universities and will come and save the day if only us ordinary folks can get in touch with him. Two years ago Tony tried to sacrifice his life to save the earth from the Venusian goo; last year he helped save the human race from telepathic martian ghosts. But he's reverted to being a schoolboy. A bit naughty, a bit nerdy. His new hobby is....ham radio.

I love it. We've found evidence of at least two sets of aliens, and are currently uncovering their ancient technology; people live on the Moon and in orbit. But putting shortwave transmitters together and playing chess with people in Hong Kong is still the height of geek-chic. Tony's namesake, Tony Hancock, famously took up the same hobby in a 1961 TV episode, and in 1963 perpetual side-kick Rick Jones recruited a collection of American hams to keep tabs on the Incredible Hulk. Tony's best mate, Sidney, is also trying to assemble a radio and obtain a licence, and there is a good-natured rivalry between the two of them. (Tony Hancock's best mate was Sid James; but he didn't appear in the ham radio episode.) But Tony now has a regular job. He is a full-time techie on -- where else? --  Hendricks satellite! He is disappointed that he is going to have to go into space on a space rocket before his radio licence comes through, so he smuggles the equipment on board the satellite.

Walters is a very workmanlike writer. You can see the construction lines, but the whole thing holds together. There needs to be a sympathetic character on the evil scientist's satellite: Tony is the obvious candidate. Chapters alternate between scientists on earth gradually realising what a terrible threat the Brown Stains represent; and Tony, gradually realising that his commanding officer is a maniac. For the threads to come together, Tony has to be able to communicate with Earth: so Walters thinks up the sledgehammer plot device of the smuggled radio. But he spends several chapters foreshadowing the development; telling us about Tony's new hobby and his rivalry with his friend; so the smuggling episode when it comes is very nearly convincing. 

Once again, the book works because it follows a detailed, procedural structure. When Tony realises something is wrong; he has to secretly send a message to Sid and Sid has to get in touch with Chris, who is giving an important lecture and is naturally inclined to think he is being pranked. Once communication is established, they have to communicate in a very sophisticated code that a mad genius would never be able to see through. ("The doctor is sending a first aid party to your town.")

And, once again, heroism means sacrifice. Tony may be a tech nerd, he may be a little naughty, but when the chips are down he does not set his life at a pin's fee. Uncle George (the doctor) is sending Chris (the first aid team) in a rocket to act as a deus ex machina; but Tony knows that Hendrick can zap the space ship so he promises to take the death ray off line. He knows that the death ray is situated in Hedrick's private lab; he knows that he can disengage it by cutting the wire that connects it to the electrical generator; but he also knows that cutting the wire will electrocute him. And so the grim death watch motif returns. 

Tony is brave: "What did it matter that his own life would be blotted out in one blinding blue flash? He'd feel nothing. It would be over in a few milliseconds." 

Tony doesn't tell his friends what he is planning, and he very nearly steals a line from Captain Oates. "I'll be back just as soon as I can." 

Tony performs a short operatic aria before his death scene: "Soon he would go on the errand from which he would never return....Through his mind flashed the various pages of his life's story, a story that was by no means a long one." 

Tony is sad:"He felt too full to speak on what he knew to be his last journey."

Tony has noticed that Hendricks thinks he is God Almighty, but he isn't consciously acting out an allegory. He is less inclined than his mentor to utter silent prayers, and appears to be agnostic about the afterlife. "Would there just be a blinding flash as his saw bit through the insulation and then know nothing more. And after that -- what then?"

And Tony very nearly turns yellow at the end. "I'm a coward" he sobbed "I don't want to die".

But finally "with a moan of anguish" he cuts the wire.

SPOILER: Hendrick had already turned the power off because reasons, so Tony survives. Chris space walks to the space station from the other ship, gains entrance to Hendrick's lab from the outside, knocks him and his allies out with anaesthetic gas, and generally saves the day. Hendricks goes down the "you'll never take me alive copper" route and jumps out of an airlock. Having saved the world, again, Tony returns home to find a letter saying that his application for a radio licence has been turned down. Walters is finding it increasingly hard to resist the bathetic punch line.