Saturday, April 29, 2023

Alien: Director's Cut

I remember when Alien came out, in the magical void after Star Wars but before Empire Strikes Back, a space inhabited by Superman and Mad Max and Saturn 3. (No-one could hear me scream.) I was 14 and not allowed to see it, although being tall for my height I could probably have got into the Barnet Odeon if I had really wanted to. Other kids in my class did. Scary movies in those days were given a provocative "X" certificate rather than a clinical 18.

I was technically too young for Aliens-with-an-S as well. The first X-cert horror film I ever saw was actually The Fog. I don't think I have ever seen a properly dirty movie at a cinema. I eventually saw Alien at an RPG convention in Hamburg. (This must be true because no-one would bother to make it up.) That is also where I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it suffered from the same problem. I already knew all the jokes.

We should be careful of using the word Iconic: it too easily slips into meaning "a good example of" or merely "a picture you may have seen before somewhere". You have certainly seen Alien before somewhere and Alien certainly is a good example of a movie of a particular type. It was a key text for the SFTTRPG community in the 1980s, and not only because it was the first scary movie lots of us had seen. It defined the sci-fi role-play aesthetic; at least until West End Games gave George Lucas a much needed kick up the franchise in 1987. Big, clunky, grungy space ships; the atmosphere of an oil rig or a military base; about as far as you could get from one of Chris Godfrey's test-flights or Captain Kirk's command chair. It's a bit of a throwback; less the first movie of a new era than the final hurrah of the previous one; it looks back at 2001 and Silent Running and the now de-cultified but then indispensable Dark Star much more than it looks forward to the Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner. The first shot, of the almost infinitely long Nostromo passing overhead seems to quote Lucas, but Lucas was quoting Kubrick. (Mel Brooks was very late to the party when he spoofed it in Space Balls; Lucas had delivered the punch line twenty years earlier.) 

The film evokes a very specific atmosphere; of a blue collar crew who go about in fatigues, moan about their pay and regard the discovery of an a extraterrestrial life-form as a rather tedious additional chore: you can see the same thing in Blakes Seven, Doctor Who (say, in the opening minutes of Invisible Enemy) and even Red Dwarf. My taste runs to the shiny and the mythic, Star Wars first, Star Trek second, everything else third; but I nevertheless find the industrial aesthetic quite appealing. I felt it while watching the first season of the interminable Expanse: I would quite like to be the film noir detective on the asteroid base who flollops into a dry-ice-smoke-filled bar and says something cryptic to someone mysterious while something foreign plays on a holo-screen behind him. Which is to say, I would quite like to role-play that player character, if role-playing games were still a possibility. But after not very long I find it boring to watch. I have never loved Blade Runner as Blade Runner deserves to be loved; and I read Ulysses for light relief after struggling through Neuromancer.

Alien aspires to be a documentary; it is desperately in love with machinery. The opening sections; the first descent to the moon which seems to go on for slightly longer than forever, is an endless montage of gears clanking and airlocks unlocking and landing rigs landing. The movie begins with a camera panning around empty cabins and corridors for seventeen or eighteen hours. Star Wars showed us technology out of the corners of our eyes: we wished we could have had a better look at the Millennium Falcon. But that's an illusion; once you've had a good look at a big machine it stops being a cool idea and just becomes a lump of metal. The same, of course, is true of hostile alien life-forms. 

Alien equivocates, wildly, about its setting. This tends to confirm my feeling that we are watching a game of Traveller, modern people with modern attitudes playing at being spacemen in the Far Future TM. There are those little blotting paper cocktail ducks on the mess dining table; one of the crewmen has cuttings from a soft-porn magazine in his locker; everyone talks modern slang. They say "robot" rather than droid or replicant. The one thing that all science fiction has always agreed on is that whether you are on Arakis or the flagship of the Galactic Patrol or an alternate timeline where Hitler won, people will always drink coffee. There is not the faintest hint about anyone having a life apart from the ship; even in the face of certain death no-one mentions wives or girlfriends or kids.

Space travel, and implicitly space mining and therefore space colonisation is commonplace: computers fill whole rooms but still have green Amstrad displays; and robots are common enough that you can live with them for months and not realise they are not humans. The question of how Ash works is not explicated: does he eat and shit and sweat and if you prick him does he not bleed? (The crew seem to be reasonably okay about taking most of their clothes off in front of each other.) I don't think we're in a galactic empire; I think everyone lives on earth but there are a few mining colonies on other worlds, close enough to access in slower-than-light-space-craft with cryogenically frozen crew. The implication is that they've been frozen for months; not centuries; there is no danger of them returning to earth and finding that the monkeys have taken over.

I think that this probably works in the movie's favour. Star Wars, after all, gave us Old Republic and Evil Empire and Good Rebellion and left us to fill in the details: Alien gives us people on a spaceship who refer obliquely to something called The Company. The dialogue, such as it is, is sufficiently naturalistic that we feel we are getting to know the characters, just a bit -- not quite identifying with them, but voyeuristically looking in on their day-job and their meal-times. We watch them coming to messy ends. We don't feel that the scary shit is happening to us. Ripley is sufficiently individualised that she doesn't tend to function as an audience avatar.

We're told that on first night screenings, audiences screamed and fainted and ran out of the cinema; that they covered their eyes because they thought the steam train was going to crash through the screen. The trailer pointedly showed you nothing but a giant egg and scary music. My local cinema showed a photo-cartoon-strip of the first 20 minutes, up to the finding of the egg, and then added "There follows a twist so unexpected that it will have you glued to your seats with horror." It is fashionable, and completely untrue, to say that spoilers don't make any difference or that a film which can be spoiled wasn't worth seeing in the first place. Star Wars doesn't depend on your not knowing that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father; although the impact of Empire Strikes Back was greater when we didn't know. But almost the whole horror of Alien depends on the Alien's life cycle being a surprise: what the hell is that thing stuck to John Hurt's face; why the hell has it fallen off him; and what the hell was wrong with those noodles that gave him such bad chest pains. The two big visual body-scare moments lose their impact once you know they are coming: the baby Alien emerging from Kane's body, and Ash being dismembered but turning out to be a machine. The special effects in the chest-burst scene now seem dated; god forgive me, the creature that emerges seems cute; and moves like a BBC rat in Victorian London. The android scene stands up much better, but is not particularly horrific once you take away the initial shock impact. There is some Hitchcockian tension as everyone crawls around the space ship getting picked off by the monster; but I struggled to be scared. Even if you had never seen the film before, it would be pretty clear that everyone is going to die and that Sigourney Weaver will be left making an heroic last stand in her underpants. Were first night audience's really tricked by the false ending?

I believe that the Ripley character was envisaged as a male in the original script; and certainly her role isn't particularly strongly gendered. The creature that emerges from John Hurt is comedically phallic; but the chest-burst scene could be regarded as a grotesque parody of childbirth. The glimpses we catch of the adult creature is mainly teeth. You could say that the film is full of imagery of rape and penetration, of birth and violation and toothed vaginas. But you could equally say that it isn't.

I understand that the director's cut differs from the theatrical cut in only quite minor respects, and that Ridley Scott now prefers the originally released version. One scene is reinstated that was cut from the 1979 release: the section in which part of the ship has morphed into an Alien environment, and we see two semi-dead crew members trussed up like Hobbits in a spider-lair, begging for death. In the end, all the sequels to Alien, and jeebers there have been a heck of a lot of them, ultimately derive from this lost scene. If you are a fan of Alien, it is the Giger/Mobius aesthetic that you are a fan of, weird curly gothic shapes like fossils and cathedrals and seashells cast in jet. No nerdish 1980s coffee table was complete without a copy of the Giger's Alien art-book, with a clear picture of the full-grown beastie staring weirdly from the cover. But rather the point of the movie is that we don't see the creature, just fragmented images of teeth and odd shaped heads and maybe a tentacle and a claw. The sequels -- and the comics and the roleplaying game and the action figures -- necessarily de-fang the movie. The partly glimpsed nightmare becomes a dangerous predator. It might kill you, but so might a Klingon or a bad case of food poisoning.

So I think I feel in the sofa lounge of the Bristol Everyman the same way I did in the video lounge of the games convention.The scariest movie ever made? Yeah; right.

Someone once said that there were basically only two kinds of sci-fi movie. The ones in which aliens (or a comet, or a plague) attack the earth and everybody dies; and the ones in which aliens (or a comet, or a plague) attack the earth and nearly everybody dies. So: an alien attacks a spaceship and kills nearly everyone. The one survivor makes a log entry and puts herself in cold storage and goes home. Was that, you know, it?

Seven friends and cat all try find egg demon before spaceship go home but is hardworking. Who will life to escaping? Who is bad milk blood robot? Scream not working because space make deaf.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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Friday, April 21, 2023

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves

There was a book, in the 70s, when it was still a new thing, called "What Is Dungeons and Dragons?"

One of the trendier fanzines, for people who had already moved on to more cutting edge games like Chivalry and Sorcery or Tunnels and Trolls suggested the title should have been: "Why is Dungeons and Dragons?"

Why is Dungeons & Dragons? It's still a good question.

There is no reason, or indeed, excuse to turn Dungeons & Dragons into a movie. It is a stupid premise for an entirely unnecessary film, and it knows it.

D&D (as we old timers used to call it) was a system of mechanics to adjudicate war games and puzzle solving games set in a fantasy world; and a huge grab bag of monsters and spells and treasure and traps and magical artefacts from which a fantasy world could be constructed. But, very quickly and perfectly understandably the horse and the cart switched places. D&D ceased to be a set of rules with which to umpire fantasy games; and became a reductive description of how fantasy actually worked. Fifth Level Chaotic Neutral Elvish Monks knew that they were Fifth Level Chaotic Neutral Elvish Monks; and all three hundred and seventy six monsters in the Monster Manual could be assumed to live within a few hexes of your local tavern. Words like Bard and Monk and Paladin acquired specific D&D reference points. We found out what the "vorpal" meant in "vorpal" sword and how many Hit Points Cthulhu had. 

And now the logic of D&D (the game) is applied to a zillion dollar movie. It would be a little as if you did a production of Murder in the Cathedral in which the three knights kept turning corners and St Thomas could only move diagonally. Which might be awesome, now I think about it. I am actually less surprised by D&D getting a big-screen movie treatment than I am by there being a full-on Pearl and Dean advert for Settlers of Catan.

Some of us saw Game of Thrones and felt it took us back to what was fun about our teenage D&D habit. A great big epic world in which Arabian Knights deserts rubbed shoulders with dragons, zombies, high medieval jousting tournaments, sleazy cities, pirates, and well, basically, all the cool bits out of every heroic fantasy story you ever vaguely recalled but with all the dull connective material left out. Which, indeed, was precisely how Bob Howard had built the Conan stories half a century earlier. D&D is often treated as being synonymous with Tolkien; but the original game was primarily inspired by the pulps: Conan and Lankhmar and ERB and Moorcock and the Dying Earth. A lot of us were positively confused that Gandalf was such a high level wizard but had such a mediocre supply of spells. 

Game of Thrones may have been a derivative trope-fest but it was a derivative trope-fest which came together in a convincing fantasy setting with a more or less convincing phantasiepolitik. At least until the final season. The average D&D game is more like a fantasy mashup set in Disneyland. Merlin riding a  dinosaur? Hobbits vs zombies? Hit points for Cthulhu? Bring it on. 

I bailed out when D&D was still called Advanced D&D, but I get the distinct impression that Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves cleaves close to the mechanics of Seventeenth Edition, or whatever it is we're up to. The spells we catch the names of (Time Stop, Hither-Thither-Staff, Sending Stones)  certainly sound like the kind of thing you'd find in the Appendix to the Supplement to the DMs guide; and a number of the monsters are far too ridiculous to be found anywhere else. A gigantic feathered woodland beastie called an Owlbear; duck-shaped brains called Intellect Devourers; a giant-corridor blocking lump of acid jelly called a Gelatinous Cube; and leopards with tentacles which are, I believe, known as  Displacer Beasts. And some of the place names (Baldur's Gate, Sword Coast, Winter-something-or-other) sound distinctly as if you could find them on one of the Official Game Maps. For all I know, some D&D nerds are at this moment complaining that the movie radically departs from the established geography of the Forgotten Realms, and some other D&D nerds are vehemently condemning them as Pedants and Gatekeepers and Class Traitors for doing so. (There is a second series of Rings of Power in production, apparently. Why do you ask?)

It's relatively rare that I go and see a lore-heavy movie without being passably familiar with the lore. I know some people are Very Angry that the recently revealed Big Bad in the Star Wars TV universe appeared a long time ago in some non-canonical books and more recently in some definitely-canonical cartoons. There were undoubtedly references in DADHAT that I didn't pick up on, but at no point did I feel lost, confused or indeed insulted. I was perfectly able to laugh at the results of casting a Speak With Dead spell, even though I had never heard of it. But if I had been able to say "Whoot, whoot, I remember when my character cast exactly the same spell and had exactly the same problem" it would have added an additional dimension. (The Astral Plane, possibly.)

The movie, like the game, is stuffed to the gills with High Fantasy but entirely devoid of a sense of what you might call wonder. Magic is a mechanism; a form of technology; nothing more. There is no suggestion that Speaking With The Dead would feel spooky, or gross, or sacrilegious; or that dead people might mind being disturbed. It's just a pretext for a series of Pythonesque gags around the fact that the spell only allows you to ask each corpse five questions. Our heroes literally go around a graveyard casting the spell repeatedly until they find a cadaver who can give them the next clue in their treasure hunt. The primary McGuffin is a magic item that will bring the wife of one of the main hero back to life; but there is no sense that bringing someone back from the undiscovered country from whence no traveller returns might be religiously or mythical or numinous. Death is merely a quite serious illness. The waddling brains are a threat (they can suck people's minds out) and a joke (everyone is insulted because they don't think that party's intellects are worth devouring) but otherwise just a piece of local fauna. The wizard in the party has something called a Hither-Thither Staff, which opens a magic portal from one place to another, allowing our party to magically cross a chasm after a bridge has inconveniently collapsed. Later on, someone spots that they can use the same staff to create a magic portal on a painting, which can be hidden in the wagon carrying the bad guys treasure, which is then placed in the bad guy's treasure vault, giving the player characters an infallible route into the bad guy's strong hold. This is just the kind of thing which a clever D&D party might have come up with: but it's game-logic, not story-logic.

It's very much the way things work at Hogwarts as well. Magic is a mechanical slot machine that can be hacked and repurposes by sufficiently ingenious heroes. I doubt if the thrice-wise Joanne had played much D&D, but I imagine that by the time her particular pot had started to boil, Dungeons & Dragons had become the normative mindset for Shitty Wizard Books (TM).

There's a plot. It's the same plot as every other action movie. The hero wants to reestablish links with his daughter (currently living with a slimy ally-turned-adversary) and bring his dead wife back to life (resurrection token currently located in the stronghold of said baddie). So he makes contact, Magnificent Seven style, with a handful of previous allies; and they embark on a Quest. In order to get into the vault they need a magic helmet; in order to find the magic helmet they need to enlist the aid of a Paladin; in order to find the Paladin they have to question some corpses in a graveyard. There are various side-quests and digressions I have almost certainly forgotten. It all ends with a huge setpiece fight that starts in an arena and ranges all around a fantasy city. It's much more frenetic than the actual game: the heroes race around labyrinths like Indiana Jones where a real party would crawl along tunnels with torches in their hands, tapping with their ten-foot poles and checking the ceiling for traps. We're a team of superheroes with special powers, not a party of adventurers with backpacks. The individual scenes are short enough that they doh't ever become boring, and they are self contained enough that if you happen to forget why everyone is currently wandering around "the Underdark" it doesn't matter all that much. It's not as soul-numbing as the Crumbs of Dumbledore, but lacks the high seriousness of, say, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

The film has one massive positive overwhelming point in its favour which makes it more enjoyable than it has any right to be. Astonishingly, the main characters actually work. They work individually as likeable protagonists whose side you are on; and they work collectively as a mismatched bunch of losers doing their very best against improbable odds. The main hero, played by Chris Pine playing Chris Pratt playing Starlord, wisecracks his way through proceedings relying on hope and optimism even though he is patently out of his depth.

"I make plans; I'm a planner. If the existing plan fails, I make another plan."

"So you make plans that fail?"

"He also plays the lute."

"Not relevant."

Where Peter Quill is an asshole, albeit a charming one, we never for one moment doubt that Edgin is a good guy with a cynical manner. (He took an oath to be part of a secret society of good guys called The Harpers, but quit to become a thief.) He has a buddy-movie friendship with Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) a barbarian who he has been hanging with ever since his wife was murdered by bad guys. There's also a perky nerdy Druid (Sophie Lillis) and a self-deprecatingly useless magician (Justice Smith). They both have pointy ears, although the wizard's stick up like an elf and the druid's stick out like a pussy cat. For part of the story they are helped by a disturbingly serious Paladin (Regé-Jean Page) who walks in a straight line and takes everything literally. ("He's a real son of a bitch?" "You attribute his evil to his mother?")

But the star turn, unquestionably is the villain, Forge, who used to be a member of Edgin's party but who has allied with an evil wizardess, taken control of a city and turned Edgin's daughter against him. He is played by none other than Hugh Grant, with exactly the same mannerisms he gave to Jeremy Thorpe a year or so back; so slimy and plausible and British that you want to punch him in the mouth every time he opens it.

The characters all have slightly different motivations for wanting to defeat Forge, but they are all working together; and until the inevitable climax they are all useless in impressively different ways. The banter never lets up, but manages to avoid becoming annoying; I think largely because there is no cynicism to it.

"Just because you have given up on your oath doesn't mean that your oath has given up on you" says the Paladin

"Just because that sentence is symmetrical doesn't mean it isn't nonsense" replies Edgin. He rallies the troops before the final act by admitting that he is the most hopeless hero of the lot of them. And of course the Paladin is quite right: he goes back to the Harpers by the end of the film.

So: a story that makes no sense; a mechanistic attitude to fantasy; wholly redeemed by a group of characters with sharp dialogue, who bicker and banter and disagree, but who like being together and who are fun to be with. And who -- no matter how awful things get -- know that the whole thing is in the final analysis only a game. A film about friendship.

Never mind your Magic Missiles and your Feather Falls. Someone involved in this movie totally gets Dungeons & Dragons.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Friday, April 07, 2023

Do Electric Muses Dream of Bloggers?

According to legend, when a journalist asked Harlan Ellison where he got his ideas from, he replied “Schenectady.” The joke was subsequently expanded until there was a story about a shop in Schenectady from which you could order “those crazy ideas” in boxes of a dozen. (It may have been Robert Heinlein.)

Some writers give less obviously silly answers. Douglas Adams tells an excellent story about drifting off to sleep one starry, starry night with a copy of the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe in his pocket, and half dreaming and half imagining that somewhere there might be a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. But this etiological myth tells us less than nothing about the origins of Adams’ very good radio script. The idea of hitchhiking barely features in the story; and when it is mentioned it feels shoe-horned in. The references to the Encyclopedia Galactica scattered through the text are a partial acknowledgement that the idea of the book that contains everything comes indirectly via Isaac Asimov. A waking dream about cut-price tourism in the milky way doesn’t get you anywhere near Peter Jones’s arch monologues; or Stephen Moore’s robot Eeyore; or the idea of leech shaped universal translator; or a very good joke about the number forty two.

I suppose that the title “The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy” has a sort of whimsical lilt to it; and the actual scripts have a similar tone. But that was very much the way Adams wrote: there are frequent flashes of it in his Doctor Who scripts and right the way through his journalism.

It may in fact be true that Paul McCartney created the melody for the song Yesterday “in his sleep”. He woke up with the song in his head; assumed he must have remembered it from somewhere; but eventually realised it was completely new. He had literally dreamt it up. But it is perhaps not a coincidence that the person into whose head Morpheus chose to drop this very good song was a person who had spent every waking minute since he was twelve years old listening to music and thinking about music and improvising music. And it would be interesting to know how often he woke up humming a song but didn't do anything with it because it was rubbish. 

It is at least arguable that there exists something called “melody” or a “tune” can be extracted from a song. People who know about this stuff say that the melody of Yesterday is musically unusual. (Something about the wrong number of beats in the key, I shouldn’t wonder.) But good music doesn’t require an original or innovative melody. Private Eye ran a campaign frivolously suggesting that Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s tunes were mainly borrowed from other sources. The great man not unreasonably said that the repeated three notes that make up the main theme to Jesus Christ Superstar could be found in many hundreds of compositions — it was his particular arrangement and orchestrations that made them into a song. Ford Prefect thought that he could convey the value of human classical music to the Vogon by chanting the first three notes of the Fifth Symphony: it understandably didn’t work. Yesterday is not just Paul’s dream-vision: it’s also his lyrics and his guitar technique and his little-boy-lost delivery and six months in Hamburg and mobs of teenagers outside the London Palladium and the murder of JFK and…

Years later, Paul acknowledged that the line “Why she had to go I don’t know, she didn’t say, I said something wrong…” may have been an unconscious reference to the early death of his mother, Mary McCartney, who subsequently came to him in another dream and whispered words of wisdom. 

Until the day he died, Stan Lee believed that the whole creative impulse that became the Marvel Comics Empire came from a sequence of little free-floating idea-nuggets that he had generated in 1963 and 1964. In later years, he would claim that the detachable idea at the heart of Spider-Man was “a teenager who can stick to walls”; and that he had had that idea while observing a fly in his writing room. But closer to the event, he claimed to have extracted the ideas for the Marvel pantheon from already existing characters: Spider-Man from a pulp called “The Spider”; Doctor Strange from a radio show called “Chandau the Magician” and the Hulk from Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. But either way, what he claims ownership of his that original, core idea. The creation of the actual comics, which was undertaken by artistic assistants, he regards as a secondary, artisanal task.

It is relatively easy to create ideas. Just put two words or two simple concepts side by side and look for the connection. It’s the principle behind William Burroughs “cutups”; it’s how fortune telling games like I-Ching and Tarot function. Topical comedians, who have to generate a large amount of material at short notice, use the formula of picking two news items at random and drawing a connection between them. It’s surprisingly easy. “Thousands of pop music fans were expected to descend on Liverpool for the Eurovision Song Contest, but unfortunately Suella Braverman has diverted them all to Rawanda.” Michael Moorcock claimed to be able to “write” a book in a weekend: but only if he had previously used free-association to create a pile of ideas to drop into the story when the hero needed something to do. Which entirely fails to demystify the creative process. It is not hard to come up with fantasy-ish phrases by putting words together: “The week of festering uncles”; “The shop of dying clothes”. It’s precisely the capacity to see the connection which makes you a funny joke-smith or a successful fantasy author.

Michael Moorcock’s example is “the city of screaming statues”. Which may be a random collection of words; but it’s a Moorcockian collection of words if ever I heard one.

“Where do you get your ideas from” is really a modern manifestation of the myth of the capricious Muse. Some people are magically gifted with IDEAS: and suddenly become writers. YOU would be a writer too if one of these IDEAS dropped on your head. If YOU had been sitting under the apple tree when the apple dropped on your head, your picture would have appeared on the old one pound notes. If you had been cleaning the mould out of the petri dish, you would have discovered penicillin. If Lord Byron had challenged you to write a ghost story, you would have invented science fiction. Remember the giant glowing finger that used to select lottery winners? It could be YOU.

It’s also a manifestation of conservative anti-intellectualism and a dislike of experts. It implies that writing is not real work: it’s just a way that people who happen to bump into ideas con punters out of cash; no different in principle from charging people money to look at your left shoulder blade or the surprising birth mark on your right buttock. It’s a good racket. I wish I’d had the completely original idea of a doing generic English school stories about generic witches and wizards; then I’d be so famous they would have to cancel me.

Rowling’s books, in fairness, do contain a lot of “ideas” — certainly the early ones do, before she was famous. A shop which sells wizards magic wands in the way that a violin shop sells violins: that’s a good idea. A room which happens to contain the exact thing you need when you go in it. A game that’s a bit like rugby and a bit like basket ball played by wizards on broom sticks. But there is no one over-arching spasm of originality: just clear slog and brainstorming the various ways in which “like school, but magic” could be applied. Magic games class. Magic chemistry lesson. Magic Eleven Plus. Magic kit-list. Magic detention. Magic tuck shop. Magic schools had already been done by Ursula Le Guin and Jill Murphy; although the more direct antecedent is the assassins school in Terry Pratchett (which itself came out of Fritz Leiber.

So let's not talk about Ideas. Let us talk instead about The Knack. I believe that I have The Knack for writing out opinions and talking points. From time to time I have Ideas: but I have never really had The Knack of turning them into stories. But I assume that’s because I don’t particularly want to.

Some Writers talk about The Knack as if it is mysterious and magical. They start to Write, they say, and their Characters just begin to do things under their own steam, sometimes things the writer never intended or even approves of. And this is attractive: as attractive as the idea of The Muse bestowing Magic Ideas on Chosen Ones. If I have never really got the hang of writing about things that didn’t happen to people who never existed, it’s not because I didn’t put in the hours or learn the skills or acquire The Knack. It’s because the Muse hasn’t inspired me. Yet. It puts the process of constructing a text into the same category as Douglas Adams and Paul McCartney’s serendipitous dreams. Maybe it will happen to me one day; but if it never does that’s not my fault. You can no more learn to be a writer than you can decide what you are going to dream about.

One of the nice things about Steven Spielberg’s recent self-biography was that it didn’t represent the creation of movies as a form of alchemy. It showed little Sammy spending hours and hours with reels of tape and sharp knives and glue, figuring out how it was done.

Nearly every week I go and listen to incredibly talented people playing guitars. Sometimes harps or fiddles or accordions but very often guitars. And it frequently blows my mind that this very beautiful music which can make me laugh or cry or vote for Jeremy Corbyn involves knowing exactly where to put your fingers while doing something entirely different with the other hand.

There was a time when no-one apart from the rich and pretentious had cellphones and then there was a time when some of my friends had them and then there was a time when I decided I needed one and then there was a time when anyone who didn’t have one was basically just showing off. Then one day someone told me that there was a way of sending short text messages from my Nokia, and I was like, “Why would I do that when the whole point of the device is that I can talk to people on it?” An indeterminate amount of time later there were devices which just sent texts and didn’t function as phones and this no longer seemed like a completely ridiculous idea. Twitter was a thing young people talked about, and then it was a thing which everyone did, and then it was the direct cause of Obama, Trump and the Sad Puppies, and then Elon came along and I am not quite sure how I am going to manage without it.

Artificial Intelligence has had an unusually quick turn-around. Before Christmas, it definitely didn’t exist. It’s now nearly Easter, and it distinctly does. Three months ago, it was quite amusing to allow Predictive Text to write Tweets for me: they came out like word games on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. “I get my ideas from the same people who have been around for years and have been working on the same thing for years and they are all very passionate about the project so they can get the idea to work.” But it's now perfectly feasible to ask Chatbot to write an essay about where writers get their ideas in the style of Andrew Rilstone. 

Whenever there is a new scientific discovery, Richard Dawkins claims that it is the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God; and a few weeks later, someone on Thought for the Day says that it confirms what Christians have always said, and life carries on very much as before. (C.S Lewis said that.) AI is not going to conquer the world and make humans obsolete any time soon; nor are we on the cusp of a bold new era when computerised house elves can free humans from labour and drudgery. (I said that.) I think that, like text messages, Google, Wikipedia and microwave ovens, chatbots will turn out to be interesting tools which will somewhat change the way we work. Some people will use them well and some people will lose badly. Wikipedia isn’t the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or the Encyclopaedia Galactica; but it does mean I can fool you into thinking that I am the sort of person who can remember who wrote the Worst Witch and hasn't forgotten the first name of the main character in the Fablemans. If you are the kind of person whose essays free associate as wildly as mine do, that is a godsend. (A back-formation from “god sent”, by the way, not attested before the beginning of the 19th century.)

But here's the thing. 

Stan Lee thought that sitting in your room thinking "What if a teenagers could stick to walls like an insect" was the same thing as creating Spider-Man. Creative geeks stare at the interstices of their favourite texts and see potential stories. “What happened the day Kirk took over from Pike on the Enterprise? Did Spock accept him straight away? When did McCoy replace Boyce?” Sometimes they see unrealised stories in the impossible spaces between different texts. “What if Darth Vader became Herald of Galactus?" "If the Smurfs and the Care Bears had a war, who would win?" "Fifty Shades of Grey, only with the characters from Cranford.” And some creative types build worlds of their own. "It's the Far Future. Human life has been infinitely extended: the earth is populated by a vast majority of incredibly old people and a tiny minority of youngsters. The old are advocating forced sterilisation; a cull of the young; even cannibalism; but the young are planning a revolt..." Unless you have The Knack, these very hungry Ideas will never emerge from their cocoon as beautiful stories. 

Once upon a time, what could be represented on a TV screen or in a movie was limited by the ingenuity of the prop and costume department. The Dalek is an iconic monster: but it is an iconic monster because Ray Cusick had to work out a way of physically constructing a roboid that could be operated by an actor in a BBC studio. The Starship Enterprise has transporters because it would have been two much trouble to film a model spaceship landing and taking off three times an episode. The arrival of computer generated animation makes such considerations secondary. If a director can imagine it and a conceptual artist can sketch it, Harrison Ford can be threatened by it. Yes, the are Luddites who say that spaceships were better when they had obvious wires and no Tyrannosaurus Rex which hasn't been personally fingered by Ray Harryhausen has a heart or a soul. And doubtless there will be days when the old techniques will be the best techniques. String puppets are an incredibly ancient and primitive form of theatre: but kids in the 1960s still enjoyed Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. Very possibly the particular kind of techno-fantasy-thriller that Gerry Anderson envisaged couldn't have been told in any other format. But I don't hanker for Avatar to be re-shot in supermarianation. CGI is a tool which can be used well or badly. Ninety per cent of everything is crap. 

There was a time when just knowing stuff made you a scholar. But now, almost anyone can know almost everything they want to know. It used to be that the only way of knowing about the Apocryphal New Testament or the minor Middle-English Arthurian stories or the first black and white seasons of Doctor Who was to study for an MA at a prestigious university. Now you can just download it onto your tablet in the kitchen while the sausages are grilling. Just knowing matters less: having something interesting to say matters more. (The availability of information has certainly changed the way we talk about Doctor Who and Spider-Man; I would be surprised if it hasn’t changed the way we talk about William Shakespeare and Plato as well.) 

So. As of last Tuesday, computers have been able to take human generated prompts and turn them into passable passages of text. Which means, surely, that the human ability to generate prompts has become exponentially more valuable, and the skill of constructing text has become correspondingly worthless. What differentiates my computer-generated fan fic about Kirk and Pike from your computer-generated fan fic about the Rani and Missy is the strength of our respective ideas. We have realised Stan Lee's dream: creativity means sitting at your desk Dreaming Up Ideas; and watching automata spew out infinite streams of narrative.  The Knack has been automated. In the future the sought after elite will be the talented idea-wright. 

As late as the 1990s, some people claimed to be able to tell when a novel had been written on one of these newfangled “word processor” devices. Keyboards and silicon chips somehow made the story much less human.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Do Bloggers Dream of Electric Muses?

Asking writers where they get their ideas from is like asking a fish how it swims. It's an absurd question, and anyone who's serious about writing should know better. Ideas are not something you find; they're something that finds you. They're like seeds that float in the wind, waiting for the right conditions to take root and grow. For a writer, these conditions are curiosity, observation, and imagination. A writer's mind is always buzzing with thoughts, images, and experiences that can be transformed into stories, characters, and themes. It's a constant process of sifting through the noise of everyday life, searching for that spark of inspiration that will ignite the creative flame. So, if you want to know where writers get their ideas from, the answer is simple: everywhere and nowhere, all at once.

It may be true that some writers possess the ability to weave together two or three words in unexpected and mesmerizing ways, conjuring sentences that are both beautiful and profound. However, it's not just the wordplay that makes a great writer. Rather, it's the writer's ability to translate ideas and emotions into a form that can be understood and appreciated by others. A writer must have a keen sense of observation, a deep well of empathy, and an understanding of the human condition. It's through these qualities that a writer is able to craft stories that resonate with readers, to create characters that feel like old friends, and to transport the reader to another world entirely. The writer's artistry is not simply in the language, but in their ability to evoke an emotional response in their readers.

For some comic book writers, the process of creating a story is a collaborative effort. They may begin with a general idea, perhaps a concept or theme that they wish to explore, and then entrust the task of visualizing and illustrating the story to an assistant. This approach allows the writer to focus on the narrative and character development, while the artist can bring their unique style and creativity to the visuals. While some may view this as a less "pure" form of writing, it's important to remember that the art of comic book storytelling is a team effort, and that the writer and artist must work together in order to create a cohesive and engaging story. Ultimately, the most important thing is not the process, but the end result: a comic book that entertains, enlightens, and inspires its readers.

Discussing the origins of creative inspiration is akin to debating the existence of the muse. While some may believe that ideas are bestowed upon us by some external force, the truth is that the creative process is a complex and multifaceted one. It's not simply a matter of waiting for inspiration to strike, but rather, a process of active engagement with the world around us. Ideas can come from anywhere: a chance encounter, a moment of reflection, a childhood memory, or a work of art. It's up to the writer to take these fragments of inspiration and shape them into something meaningful. The act of writing itself is a form of inspiration; the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is an act of creation in and of itself. Ultimately, the myth of the muse is a distraction. The real magic of writing lies not in the source of inspiration, but in the writer's ability to harness it and create something truly remarkable.

Legend has it that Paul McCartney awoke from a deep slumber with the melody of "Yesterday" already fully-formed in his mind. Whether this story is true or not is beside the point; what's important is the creative spark that it represents. Inspiration can strike at any moment, often when we least expect it. For McCartney, it came in the form of a dream, but for others, it may come in the midst of a conversation, a walk in the park, or while washing the dishes. The key is to be open and receptive to these moments of inspiration, and to have the tools and skills necessary to capture and develop them into something more. McCartney's iconic melody is a testament to the power of creative inspiration, and a reminder that some of the greatest works of art are born from the most unexpected sources.

However, it's worth noting that asking writers where they get their ideas from is not necessarily a manifestation of any political ideology or a dislike of experts. It's a common question that people ask because they are genuinely interested in the creative process and want to gain insight into the mind of the artist. While there may be some individuals who hold anti-intellectual views and reject the value of expertise, it's important not to generalize or stereotype based on a single question. Additionally, writers themselves come from diverse backgrounds and hold varying political views, so it's not accurate to say that all writers are targeted by conservative anti-intellectualism or a dislike of experts.

Bob Dylan is known for his lyricism and storytelling abilities. His songs are often filled with vivid imagery and characters that feel like real people. Like Dylan, great writers must have a keen sense of observation and an understanding of the human condition. They must be able to craft stories and characters that resonate with readers, transporting them to another world entirely.

C.S. Lewis was a master of using allegory and symbolism to convey complex themes and ideas. His ability to make abstract concepts concrete and relatable is something that writers strive for. It's not just the wordplay that makes a great writer; it's the writer's ability to translate ideas and emotions into a form that can be understood and appreciated by others.

Karl Ove Knausgaard is known for his autobiographical novel series, "My Struggle." Knausgaard's writing is intensely personal, yet universal in its themes of love, loss, and the search for identity. His ability to delve into the depths of human experience and come out with something that feels true and authentic is what sets him apart. For writers, the ability to evoke an emotional response in their readers is paramount.

At present, Artificial Intelligence can only respond to ideas given to them by humans. They may be able to generate responses, but they lack the creativity and imagination that are fundamental to the human experience. In other words, they're not the sharpest knives in the drawer when it comes to original thought.

Don't get me wrong; AI has come a long way. We now have machines that can beat us at chess, diagnose diseases, and even write coherent sentences. But let's not kid ourselves. The true mark of intelligence is not the ability to regurgitate information or follow a set of rules; it's the ability to think outside the box, to come up with something new and unexpected.

As much as I love technology, I have to admit that there's something fundamentally human about the creative process. It's messy, unpredictable, and sometimes downright frustrating. But it's also exhilarating, as anyone who's ever experienced that moment of inspiration can attest. There's nothing quite like the feeling of bringing something into existence that never existed before.

So, while AI may be able to mimic human thought processes to some extent, it can't replicate the messy, unpredictable, and ultimately human experience of creativity. At least not yet. Who knows what the future holds? Maybe one day we'll have machines that can match the creative output of the most talented writers and artists. But until that day comes, I'll continue to rely on my own imperfect, human brain to come up with new ideas. After all, who wants to live in a world where robots write all the novels and paint all the pictures? That sounds like a recipe for a very boring dystopia.

It's clear that as technology advances, the role of writers and artists will continue to evolve. Artificial intelligence can now generate text, but it can't have ideas of its own. So, while we may marvel at the capabilities of machine learning and natural language processing, the question of where writers get their ideas from will become even more important. Ideas are the lifeblood of creative expression, and as long as there are human experiences to draw from, writers and artists will continue to find new and inventive ways to explore them. So, let's raise a glass to the power of imagination and the endless possibilities it holds. Cheers!


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.