Thursday, 31 October 2019

Talk to the hand

Each week Prof Bromfield and Dr Clattercut roll up their sleeves and plunge into the mail sacks that have arrived at the Royal Mythological Society's offices. (Dame Sepia wisely stays out of it.)

Dear gents

I’m not one for fancy words so I’ll come right to point. I’m the gamekeeper for the Earl of Derby at his Whitley estate. Few days back, there were a right exodus from the woods up by his coverts. Squirrels and birds and mice and frogs, insects too, all come pouring out. You’d think whole forest were aflame. And dead quiet after. I went on me own to take a look, none of the beaters would stir an inch, and you’ve never heard the like of that silence. Right in the heart of wood all the trees were down like skittles, and in the midst were a great gigantic hand, knuckles like boulders and each nail as big as a coal cellar door. Hairs on it like barbed wire. The old dog would have nowt to do with it, no fool him.

It’s just the hand, like, no blood or bone showing. You’d mark it clay but for the plain fact it’s warm flesh. And it lies there, cupped with the palm down, but not limp like a dead ‘un. More like your own hand if it were resting on the arm of a chair, now and then moving just a bit, a twitch or a scratch.

Well, there’s no shooting to be done while it’s there. No wildlife will come within a mile of it, you see, except for adders. And I can’t think what it’d take to move the thing. Any notions?

Yours, Ben Gummer, Great Heck, Yorkshire

Dr Clattercut replies: This is a curiosity indeed. From the scale of the extremity, I think we can surmise it belongs to a giant, god or titan. It is unfortunate, Mr Gummer, that you omit to say whether it is a right or left hand. The god Tyr, of course, famously had his right hand bitten off by the Fenris wolf, whereby the Old Norse word for the wrist was “wolf-joint”.

Prof BromfieldIt would be a bit chewed up in that case, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that Fenris swallowed the hand, so you’d expect to see industrial quantities of wolf poo around. As Mr Gummer specifically says the wrist is clean of blood, I take it to be more in the nature of a supernatural dismemberment. Didn’t the Egyptian god Set use magic to sunder Osiris’s body into fourteen parts?

Dr ClattercutBut none of those parts, I think, would logically turn up now in a wood in Yorkshire. More likely, I feel, the hand is a fragment of one of the giants Gog and Magog, who were disjected by Brutus of Troy when he founded Britain. This could also explain why snakes, which owe their allegiance to older gods, are comfortable in the hand’s presence.

Prof BromfieldAs to the practicalities: it’s obviously too big to get on a cart, even if Mr Gummer could induce the horses to approach it. So what about tickling it with a feather. It’d take a bit of patience, but that way it should be possible to get the hand to twitch and convulse enough to drag itself out of the woods.

Dr ClattercutAnd, always assuming it didn’t flick its tormentor away, unless you would take the trouble to tickle it all the way to the sea that would still only result in a giant hand blocking the road. Personally I’d advise putting a fence around the woods and moving the coverts elsewhere. No doubt it’s a bother, but it’s the lesser of two bothers.

Monday, 10 September 2018

The future back then

I had an odd introduction to Star Trek. Before I even knew the TV show existed, I came across the first ST book by James Blish in the newsagents on Wych Hill in Woking where I used to hang out in the hope of grabbing occasional US imports of Conan and Lin Carter books. The Pokemon Go of its day, that book-hunting. This must have been late '68 or early '69.

OK, so I'd heard of Blish and I figured this was in the same vein as Eric Frank Russell's Men, Martians & Machines. It was only when I got home and read the blurb that I realized the stories were adapted from TV episodes which were not, as it turned out, going to air in Britain until the summer of '69. My mental image of the characters was informed solely by that cover. So I read the stories envisaging Spock as green and Bones looking like an older Jimmy Olsen.

I gave the book to a friend of mine at school who was taken to hospital with rapid-onset diabetes. He and I used to swap Ace Doubles (back-to-back SF books) that you could buy super-cheap in Woolworths back then, so I figured he'd enjoy Star Trek. A few months later the BBC started running the show and all my friends became Trekkers. But I got there first.

With its grown-up storylines and in-built socialist humanism, Star Trek was always going to appeal more to me than the reactionary trend in SF typified by tropes like - well, royalism and mysticism and black-&-white morality and libertarianism. Naming no names. It was another era; an age of reason and hope. We were boldly going together towards a future that never contained the likes of Trump and Brexit.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Wishing makes it so

Another snippet of correspondence from the files of the Royal Mythological Society:

Dear Doctor Clattercut and Professor Bromfield

As it is the season for falling stars, and this summer we may expect a number of green meteors from the tail of Comet Meadowvane, I wonder what will result from the consequent spate of wishes all coming true?

Frank Dyson,

Dr Clattercut replies: It has been my experience that, for every person harbouring a given wish, there is somebody else who wishes the exact opposite. Therefore, although hundreds of wishes will be granted during this year’s meteor showers, the overall effects can be expected to cancel out. You’re very quiet, Bromfield.

Prof Bromfield: I just realized that I’ve blown rather a lot of money at the bookies.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Stories and games

‘Awright, awright. So I killed an old couple for a can of beans. Still tucking in, though, right? Remorse didn’t spoil your appetite.’

My friend’s wife, passing the room, stepped back and looked in with an expression of maternal concern. ‘Everything okay?’

‘Sure, except that we’re now having to give away the last of our medicine to a beggar to stop these whiners from moping. Other than that, everything’s great.’

It was This War of Mine, a game in which you look after a household of refugees in the middle of a war zone. No death-or-glory shoot-‘em-up, this is a game where victory is keeping a tomato plant alive long enough to get a meal off it. Survival means hard choices. Selfishness. Robbery. Even murder.

Videogames, of course, are full of mayhem and murder. Many portray a mean world in which the enemies you blow away are so othered as to be mere objects. But tie the possibility of bloodshed to a life-or-death situation and things become interesting. It’s no longer the violence of the true sociopath or the zombie killer, so dreadfully boring, but the choice of ordinary human beings in extremis.

Injustice is a ripe subject for storytelling, and the most potent weapon to that end in traditional fiction’s arsenal is empathy. It’s hard not to feel a red fury of outrage at Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s full-sail arrogance, or choke with shame at Siegfried Sassoon’s contemptuous treatment of his aged semi-fictional aunt. On the other side of the coin, we can be made complicit in mankind’s least savoury urges and thereby feel a twinge of guilt at having rooted for a bad egg like Vic Mackey or Richard III. Yet it is only the guilt of having been their cheerleader. We don’t personally pull the trigger.

That’s one of many areas where interactivity can prove a useful storytelling tool. Interactivity opens up the possibility of taking and abusing power, the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to bring out the very worst in a person – my example at the head of this piece when playing This War of Mine, for instance. More generally, feelings are sharper at first hand. Literature uses as its paintbrush the human capacity for empathy, whereas interactive stories put your hand on the gun – or on the bandage, or the baby’s bottle. Being a player rather than a reader means no longer having to be content with the role of a Boswell.

In The Talos Principle, the player is an android who awakens to find its task in life is solving a series of logic problems. Too dry to try? You’d rather do your tax returns? Think again: we’re not talking about algebra or which shape fits in which hole. These are challenging environmental puzzles that call for ingenuity, reasoning and lateral thinking. Such things, along with a warm cave, a haunch of mammoth, and a mate, put the biggest grin on the face of our Palaeolithic forebears. And to give it all a narrative drive, we’re continually chivvied along by an entity calling himself Elohim who informs us that he has created this world for us, and these puzzles to test us, for we are his most favoured children who will inherit creation. Just so long as we don’t step outside the boundaries he has prescribed, that is.

In between Elohim’s puzzles, we come across antique computer terminals and graffiti through which we’re able to access messages left by other androids and even human antecedents. This has the nature of what is often called ergodic storytelling (and by the way it’s rare to come across a term that offends both the physicist and classicist in me) in that we are given the fragments and left to fit them together for ourselves.

That’s not what’s special. Twentieth century literature abounds in such narratives. Most game stories come in jigsaw form, too, from Dear Esther to Her Story. The Talos Principle is notable because the central story hook – that pompously nannying Elohim – informs every problem we solve. At the same time as experiencing the drive towards ‘Man’s first disobedience’ we are indulging our pride, trying to impress the creator who is already beginning to royally tick us off. Or maybe he isn’t. My own knee-jerk to moralizing deities is to plan rebellion. Others may be moved to reverence, and that’s interesting too. And so our actions even while playing the most logic- and plot-driven parts of the game are still all about the illumination of character.

You see that what we are talking about here are not those games where the story is all loaded into non-interactive cutscenes in between the running and the shooting. As Chris Crawford, the Captain Cook of the game/story littoral, says, ‘Merely to glue story onto game and then alternate between the two, that’s just a trick.’ For this fusion of media to be interesting, the story needs to arise out of and drive the gameplay. It is easy to force a reader or viewer to interact. The trick is in making them want to interact, and in letting the story unfold hand-in-hand with that. For a guideline from the non-interactive media, notice how narrative and action in Fury Road happen at the same time. The best game stories follow that principle.
“As more and more stories, IPs and universes are expressed through the means of interactivity and by playing, the new mantra for this era of storytelling could become ‘Play, don’t show’.”  -- Thomas Vigild
You may ask what has all this to do with books. The founders of Inkle, whose text engine I used to create my interactive re-envisioning of Frankenstein, have pointed out that when people are interacting they typically have little tolerance for prose. If forced to read, they skim. This is very different from the experience of reading a work of literature, where the mind is tuned to see the landscape and characters via the text as surely as Cypher in The Matrix reads a world of blondes, brunettes, and redheads in the fleeting strings of numbers on his screen. Then we don’t even see the prose. But when we’re invited to sit forward and actively engage, words become a forest through which we must machete our way impatiently to the next significant choice.

For that reason, and in spite of working as both a writer and a game designer with a particular interest in interactive storytelling, I tend to think that grafting game-like interactivity into novels is a dead end. I wrote Frankenstein to explore the possibility creating a fictional two-way relationship with a character (the reader acts as Victor’s confidant and advisor) but believe me I would much rather have used animation or live action video or even just audio if the publisher’s budget had stretched to it. Prose in this context simply has the virtue of being cheap enough for a publisher to afford.

That’s not to say we should be aiming for a future in which novels come with animations and sound effects. Other media already deploy those tools to much better effect, and in any case there is no storytelling medium more immersive than pure prose. Have confidence in your strengths, dear writer, or give it all up now and create apps instead.

What, then, can novelists learn from games? Perhaps more from the way games are consumed than from the content itself. Consider how the narrative structure of the popular novel was shaped by magazine publication through the 19th and early 20th century. Games often take the form of a parallel reality into which the player can drop at any time. The story, as in life, is not necessarily on hold when you’re not there. Naturally, as with any other narrative technique, there are good and bad ways to tell a persistent story. Tamagotchi is much less irritating – or at any rate, its irritant value contrasts more interestingly with its emotional engagement – than something like the hectoring Majestic, a dead-end experiment in persistent narrative from the turn of the millennium that the games industry keeps reinventing like a lab rat that’s too dumb to learn from an electric shock. Give it a year or two, you’ll see what I mean.

Think instead of reality soaps, or theatre sports like TV wrestling, or even the drama of politics. The story runs alongside your daily life. You have the option when to drop in and how committed to be. The difference in gaming is that the community can feed back directly and immediately into the narrative that everybody else experiences. Might there be a takeaway here for novelists? Perhaps. Only bear in mind, I beg you: first do no harm. But with that caveat feel free to indulge in fleeting opportunity and perilous experiment, for the long evolution of literature is surely not over yet.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Too much magic!

Dear Professor Bromfield and Dr Clattercut

It has come to a pretty pass, I have to tell you. From when I was a small boy I had my nose in old maps, tracing the routes taken by the great pioneers. Lewis and Clark traversing the Rockies. Parry mapping the Hudson Bay pack ice. Livingstone in his canoe getting his first sight (indeed, sound) of Victoria Falls. In my imagination I accompanied them all, and my dream from those early days was to become an explorer.

Not to blow my own trumpet, but I achieved the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal when I was yet nineteen, for my expedition in the northern Sahara. I was getting things together to go up the Indus. But then it happened. What, you may ask? Your green comet, gentlemen!

The first inkling was during a trip to Pompeii. I was there a couple of months ago and the ground just cracked open one day—fissures down thirty feet to the houses and shops of Roman times. Being covered in pumice didn’t stop the citizens from getting up a thriving trade with the locals. Net result: archaeologists and historians might as well pack up and go home.

Next thing: scouting trip to the Hindu Kush. Safe enough, you may think, from fantastical influences if not from jezail bullets. But you can’t move now for yeti selling trinkets. And as for ancient lost kingdoms — there’s a queue to get in!

This is no good for a man like me. I need a challenge, a mystery to solve, an uncharted region to dent the bounds of. So off I set to the Antarctic, quite alone. Surely here I could escape the flood of goblins, gods and who-knows-what that has become the curse of the modern world?

On the third day out I came across a giant staircase cut into the ice. I began to descend, only for the ground to give way below my feet, plunging me — no, not into freezing snow, but a subterranean realm of dripping jungle lit by the fires of inner Earth. Long story short: I evaded the carnivorous dinosaurs infesting this land by covering myself in their ordure. But when I finally reached a savannah that was free of them and stopped to wash, no sooner was I clean again than a giant bird swooped down and carried me off to a mountaintop palace inhabited by men who I take to be descendents of the ancient Toltecs. They insisted on keeping me with them and now I learn that they intend to crown me as their god-king.

This is no good. I desire a bit of solitude and a place where man has to make an effort to uncover the unknown — not where it comes knocking at his front door and demanding entry with all the grace and mystique of a cockney shoe salesman. Too much magic, gentlemen!

Yours sincerely,
Sir Iain MacTavish,
the Earth’s Core

Prof Bromfield replies: I’m getting a bit fed up of people blaming us for all the magical to-do. Shooting the messenger, and all that. Might as well shout at your bookie if the horse you backed comes in last. Though, on reflection, they often are the culprits there… You’re a bit quiet, Clattercut.

Dr Clattercut: I’m a tad concerned that Toltec custom was to sacrifice their god-kings after a year on the throne. If this reply reaches you, Sir Iain, then I suggest you set off back to Britain as soon as possible. It may not be exciting, but it’s home.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

How to deal with trigger warnings without wrecking fiction

When I was a kid, the comic books I bought were published under the Comics Code Authority. That came about as a result of the Wertham horror comics scare of the 1950s. If you saw a book with the Code seal on it, you could be sure it wouldn't have swearing or excessive violence, or deal with sensitive issues like drug use.

Famously, Spider-Man went out for three issues without the CCA seal when Stan Lee insisted on running a story that featured drug addiction. I remember wondering what this meant. At any rate, the sky didn't fall in.

The Comics Code was designed to control the kinds of story kids were reading. Nowadays some grown-ups are concerned about encountering stories that will upset them. And so we hear about trigger warnings and content notes, the point of which are to warn the reader: "This novel may emotionally upset you with scenes of x, y or z."

The problem with a trigger warning is that pretty much all good stories are going to shake you up, the best ones quite radically and not at all gently, and being told the way they're going to do that is guaranteed to ruin the story. So how do we ensure that sensitive readers can steer clear of anything that might upset them while the rest of us dive into the unpredictable currents of hopefully disturbing literature?

How about a Novels Code Authority? In effect, in place of putting a trigger warning on any book that could upset some readers, mark the books that include no such content. Any novel published under the Novels Code would be certified free of emotional triggers, just like those Code-approved comics in the '50s and '60s. So anybody can safely read a book with the NCA seal on the cover. If it doesn't have the seal, that tells you it might contain triggers and you've got the option not to read it.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Tear jerkers

“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone … or because I hate someone or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live … maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, and I will stand here doing it until it kills me. You’re going to die, too, someday. When will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”

That, right there, is why I can't sit through an episode of Doctor Who anymore. Because it’s become one long self-indulgent pantomime, all speeches to the audience about how special the character's feelings are. The show is like one of those manufactured glimpses of a celebrity's life that Hello thrives on, endlessly repeated in an increasingly overwrought tone.

Think back to Jon Pertwee's Doctor. Desperate to escape from Earth, often at loggerheads with his companions, he stood for decency too. But the story wasn't slipped in as a subtext to his angst. And he never needed to get up and tell us what he was all about. His actions showed us that.

The sensibilities of YA fiction have taken over a lot of stories today. In effect the characters are adolescents, with everything that happens in the story being about them personally. There was a point to that when it just applied to Buffy and Spider-Man. They were teenagers. But now, God help us, so are James Bond and Superman and the crew of the Enterprise. So we're going to hear a lot more speeches about how hard it is to be a hero, a lot more tear-jerking farewells as the music swells. Moments in which the show can run out in front of the fans and tell them its manifesto. None of it rings true because we know, don't we, that real heroes don't talk about their heroism. But with this storytelling style, truth is the first casualty. Cordelia would get nowhere. Can't heave your heart into your mouth? There’s no place for you in Doctor Who then, love. The paradigm of the hero now is Goneril and Regan, posturing and speechifying to set the lips aquiver and bring big rolling soap-opera tears to the eyes.

It's populism. Yes, that again. Bad enough that it's wrecking politics, now it's taken root in storytelling too. Every season of Doctor Who is like a barrage of self-congratulatory Trump tweets. The show isn't SF drama anymore, it's one extended marketing campaign for itself. “Maybe there's no point in any of this at all – ” Moffat is surely talking there about having to write the same emotional beats month after month. Endless regenerations eventually hitting the Hayflick limit.

The fans just lap this stuff up, of course. The more a show refers to itself, the more they love it. But nothing can thrive on fan support alone. So I'm hoping we'll see a swing towards richer stories that build quality and a sense of character over time. The Whovian equivalent of Breaking Bad. Not flashy and full of quotable fan faves, but a story that quietly reveals itself to be a modern classic. It could still happen.