A Look at Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Dead Poets Society

As my last blog post covered, I recently watched The Good Wife, which starred Josh Charles, whose other main credit was Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society. I hadn’t watched that film in years and had a sudden yearning to revisit it.

I was an undergraduate student when it first came out back in 1989. My friends and I saw it multiple times (films were cheap back then where I went to university). For all its familiarity, the two trigger points still triggered me. I rarely cry at films or TV, but Dead Poets gets me in two scenes because the film spoke to me on a profound level. It still speaks to me, but it’s different now.

Back then my wounds still bled, and I’m not writing entirely figuratively.

I went to a single-sex high school. State-run, but it had pretensions of being private and exclusive. My years spanned the 1980s when there was a bit of a backlash against the social progress of the 1960s and 1970s. None of this is clear-cut, of course, with different bits moving at different speeds. My school was ruled by a woman who insisted on being called Head Mistress – none of that gender-neutral Principal rot for her. She was enthralled by Ronald Reagan, and went to the USA to witness his second inauguration. On return she expressed her wish that Australians would emulate the US form of overt patriotism. I remember teachers had issue with her approach, and as I grew older and experienced the beginnings of friendship with some of them I learned their concern was about how she nurtured a school that excelled in all the classes that would turn unruly girls into good wife material.

Only the real world intervened, and the state curriculum ensured that we got a late 20th century education. However, I didn’t quite fit in and I ended up repeating my final year of senior high school at an independent school that I thrived in. That’s life, and decades on the pain of living it has receded.

Parts of my experiences were what made me identify with Neil Perry and his struggle to be free to explore his talent. His tragedy is and always has been that he merely stretched the confines of his life, not break it, and yet he saw death as his only way out. His talent was acting, mine writing and the intellectual pursuits of history and politics.

As a school kid, and throughout my university years, I detested public speaking of any kind. I liked to write the words for others to speak. I was called shy, but really it was introversion. If I ever do write a letter to my teenaged self, a large paragraph would be all about how I needn’t worry about that. Confidence will deal with most of it, but also I have never felt the need to just talk unless I have something to say. I am still that way.

So. Yes. I identified strongly with Todd Anderson.

Watching Dead Poets back now from the advantage of someone who has done pretty well in realising my dreams, and has learned a lot about how the world works, that shyness and introversion still resonate. Stronger, if anything. Todd’s confused, panicked bravery at the end when he confronts the Head Master to tell his teacher, Mr Keating, that he was forced to lie is an emotional punch because he is fighting so much to just speak. That and his reaction to the news of Neil’s death are the two scenes that get me every time. His normal desire to hide destroyed because of his all-consuming grief.

But, this watch I also saw the raw pain expressed by Neil’s parents.

That’s Weir’s genius as a director. The small, powerful scenes. Mostly unspoken. I think I had unconsciously picked up on it when I consciously identified so strongly with the kids. Now, as an adult, it’s undeniably there. So much depth in a short film by today’s standards.

I decided to then watch Weir’s earlier film, Picnic at Hanging Rock (the 1998 director’s cut). It’s another favourite of mine that I have watched many times, but I’ve never watched these two sequentially.

What struck me were the similarities between the two films. There are the obvious points: the strict school principals, the sensitive child who doesn’t fit in, the inspiring teacher who doesn’t fit the school’s restrictive ethos, the rebellion by the kids, the forbidden infatuation of the other by an outsider, and the death by suicide of a kid who sees no way out even though escape is arguably nearby. Both schools are steeped in British tradition in their new lands. Both films are of their landscapes, too, and hint at the past, restive human occupants that the white people blunder into. Both films are fascinating character studies, beautifully shot and underplayed, but with moments of explosive emotion.

There are obvious differences. Gender the main one, at least on the surface. Miss Appleyard’s college is run by women for girls; Welton Academy is run by men for boys. Having said that, the male world of Dead Poets Society is not particularly masculine. In fact, it questions it and pokes at it from a few different angles. Neither at the time I first watched them, nor now, did I feel any attraction to any of the characters. I identified with some, their problems and struggle to be themselves yes, but I never fantasised about any desires for them. I never saw them as sexual beings.

Both films are really more about class and colonialism, with a culture uprooted from Britain and transplanted to two different post-colonial white nations. Both films examine class through the lens of the past; 1900 and the 1959. Both show the clash of the lower classes played out by kids who cannot control how that clash affects their lives. Neither Sarah (the orphan from Picnic) nor Neil can cope when that clash threatens their lives and dreams – for Sarah the knowledge that Miranda will never reappear and that she is destined for poverty, for Neil the knowledge that acting is forbidden him and that he is destined to a military academy to entrench him in the upper middle class.

Both films are set on the cusp of times of great liberating change, too, for each country.

Picnic is based rather closely on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, but Dead Poets had an original screenplay by Tom Schulman. Weir had a lot of creative control over both films, and I wonder how many of these thematic echoes were simply just what happens or were at any time deliberate.

If you’ve not seen either film, I highly recommend both.

WorldCon75 – All bound for Helsinki

 

My first World SF Convention (WorldCon) was LonCon3, and my second was the one in Helsinki this August. Some of those involved with pre-con planning were the same for both WorldCons, and during the build-up to Helsinki hosting WorldCon 75 I had learned enough about Finnish conventions to know they had organised relatively big events before. And Helsinki was a draw for me; I’d never been to Scandinavia before and so leapt at the chance.

Twitter followers will know that I did Nine Worlds London Geekfest the weekend before, which is what I did for LonCon3 as well. That meant needing to fly to Helsinki from London, but because one of the Helsinki pre-con volunteers had said that the ferries between Helsinki and Sweden and Germany are a great way to travel I investigated that for the return trip. So, yes, I signed up for WorldCon 75 to get a bit of a holiday as well.

Anyway, I arrived in Helsinki on Tuesday afternoon after a good flight from Heathrow. I got to my hotel easily and after checking in headed out for a wander to get my bearings. It’s a lovely city, especially when bathed in sunshine. I found one of the harbours, and an outdoor market, and then a place for dinner – Nepalese. I love how different countries affect restaurants like this. It was pleasant, and nicely threw in rice and salad with the main meat dish I ordered.

I had an early night, recovering still from Nine Worlds and an early morning for the flight.

The venue for WorldCon was, so the advance information said, an easy train ride from central Helsinki. That was indeed true, but as Wednesday dawned with blue skies I decided to check it out on my phone’s map and saw it would be less than an hour to walk it. As it ended up, the walk goes through two parks and then alongside the railway. Straightforward, and I ended up walking in every day. I walked back twice, the other times going by train.

On arrival, I saw quite a few Nine Worlders and we joked about our wisdom in doing two conventions back-to-back. I also met a lovely woman Doctor Who fan I know from Twitter. Check-in to the convention was efficient, and I ended up spending time familiarising myself with the venue and saying hello to lots more friends. I went to the large room for the opening ceremony and started to hear about the over-crowding – not everyone was able to get in. Not so great for people with access needs, but as I understood it the convention responded very quickly. The opening was quite good, and I appreciated the introduction to Finnish culture. Those long, cold winter nights… and then the long summer days. I was born and bred in Sydney, Australia, where there isn’t really that much difference. I’ve adjusted to living in London where there is a difference, but it’s not as extreme.

I stayed for Tea and Jeopardy – about the only thing I really, really wanted to see. Emma and Peter Newman are so talented, and George RR Martin a most excellent foil for the live version of their podcast. I was so delighted when Emma and Peter won their Hugo for Tea and Jeopardy. Well-deserved, and while I didn’t get to see much of the Hugo ceremony I did see their win. Also, I really enjoyed what I did see of the Hugo ceremony and related gala. I am delighted that Emma and Peter are going to release a video of their show as soon as they are able to. A few words for the spoiler-shy: there is only one direct Game of Thrones reference, and there are no spoilers in it.

The things I love about SF conventions are the chance to meet people and share views about things, learn from others about science, history (not just English-speaking or western), mythologies, pedagogy, linguistics, and whatever else takes people’s fancy. The vast array of people’s interests and experiences are mind-blowing. Honestly, the thing that I find most exciting about SF/F/H at the moment is its breadth and depth. I already have a lot of books on my to-be-read pile, and I have now added to that pile – both physical books, and electronic. And there are a few that I hope will be translated into English at some point. I think I saw all those who I knew were going to be there, plus a few. I had a few chats with people I met just at the convention, and others I had met briefly at other conventions. All fascinating. All lovely. Plus, of course, I spent quite a bit of time with old friends who I only really ever see at conventions.

Panels are the big thing at these conventions. Loads of people go to them to learn stuff – whether it be facts about all the subjects that you could possibly want (it’s really not just about space and rockets, even though space itself is endlessly amazing and surprising and the rockets humanity has built have taken us to reaches of space that were SF when I started reading Asimov as a teenager), or hearing favourite (or new) authors talk about their creative processes.

The panels at WorldCon were listed as going for an hour, but in order for people to move about they really only went for 45 minutes, or 30 minutes if the panel opened up to the audience for questions or comments. The number of people on panels varied quite considerably over the convention, and the smaller ones were able to better get into the topics while the larger ones barely touched on them. As ever with these things, the skills of the moderator to keep on topic and deal with any issues that might arise. Their job is to keep the conversation flowing, and then to wrangle questions from the audience. I’ve seen a few people take to social media pointing these things out, and if ever you do end up moderating a convention panel it really is a good idea to take note of this advice. As an audience member of poorly moderated panels, it is a relief to see a good moderator at work. As a panellist who has worked with both poor and good moderators, it really does matter when you have a good moderator to work with. I have moderated a few panels now, and I’m not going to claim perfection, but I have learned what works and what doesn’t.

Anyway, I didn’t end up seeing too many panels. I heard about some excellent ones, which will no doubt be highlighted in other reviews and reminiscences. The one that I did see that stood out was the one supposed to be on pre-Harry Potter magical schools. While I quite enjoyed it and found some of the panellists interesting – and I would have like to hear more about Italian versions, rather than just the Anglophone ones – it was a victim of too many panellists for 45 minutes, and the moderator was less than optimally effective, especially when a latecomer arrived on the panel and took over.

The Resistance panel was also good, but very heavily US-centric, saved by Kameron Hurley talking about her experiences in South Africa and drawing on her academic work in the field.

I enjoyed the one on Cyberpunk with Pat Cadigan (but, honestly, I could listen to her all day), and I found Quifan Chen’s contributions to be fascinating about real-life now cyberpunk cities in his native China. I’m reading Pat’s Synners, at long last, and greatly enjoying it.

I had a lovely set of panels that stretched one a day over four days, all but one at 3pm. Two of them were on military SF, and I moderated both. Jean Johnson was on both, too, which was good – she’s entertaining and interesting and I have made a note to read some of her work… once I get my reading pile down a bit. The first panel we were on was on women writing military SF and joining Jean was Walter Jon Williams. While Walter was lovely, and a guest of the convention, it seemed odd having him on a panel about women writers. I didn’t want to pitch “men against women”, or to ignore trans and non-binary people, and I also believe that people want to see their favourite authors talk about their craft at these things. Anyway, they were both brilliant and we discussed quite a few women who write military SF. A Japanese woman approached me afterwards and gave me a copy of the first instalment of the manga Wombs by Shirai Yumiko. It would be fab if her work could be connected up to the project about space marine midwives, if it isn’t already.

The second military SF panel I moderated had Jean again, two US veterans (Jack Campbell and Jonathan Brazee), and an Irish writer (Edmond Barrett). It was about characters in the sub-field, and this one was easy to moderate. All four were interesting, none were retiring and none dominated. We talked about individuals and groups, and the drawing on what’s authentic, and ditching what might be accurate but slows stories down because you would just have to explain it too much. We also talked about characters who end up becoming main characters even though they were only ever supposed to remain background. Jack very kindly gave me a copy of his book, The Dragons of Dorcastle, which I am very much looking forward to reading.

The last panel I moderated was called On the Side of the Law and featured writers Max Gladstone, T.G. Shepherd (also an Emergency Services Dispatcher from Canada), and public prosecutor Britt-Louise Viklund from Sweden. The panel was quite late on the last day, but ended up being a rather energetic and interesting one – despite too many people wandering in throughout from a door up the front. We discussed the tensions between making characters and situations recognisable in real life also drive narratives in fiction. We explored the use of easy tropes that we see day-to-day in TV and film and other books – many from the USA – and how they emerge as ‘truth’ in fantasy and SF. The obvious example was the reading of ‘Miranda rights’ in non-US set fiction.

I was a speaker on a related panel on Friday, moderated by the lovely Melissa F. Olson. My co-panellist was Icelandic author Emil Hjörvar Petersen who has written a series described as Nordic noir (a favourite genre of mine) meets fantasy. We explored the works of Paul Cornell (his Shadow Police series) and Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Peter Grant series. We had a good little romp through their books and others that are similar.

Five days with a packed series of different strands means that It’s impossible to go to everything. I’ve enjoyed both WorldCons I’ve been to immensely, and mostly it’s the meeting people who you can just chat with, listen to and learn amazing new things from, and just enjoy being with others who don’t find thinking about extreme possibilities as remotely odd. Kiitos again to our Finnish hosts for their hard work in bringing this WorldCon to us.

Finally, I am really pleased that Dublin won their bid and I am fully signed up for it in 2019.

NineWorlds London Geekfest, 4 – 6 August 2017

This was my fifth 9Worlds London Geekfest, and it is a convention firmly in my calendar. It was in its second year at the Hammersmith Novotel, and once again the hotel staff were pretty good. Check in was certainly a much better experience for me this year. I do love the fact that the hotel fielded a team in the Shark game.

This year I had actually submitted two panel ideas, and I was delighted that both were accepted. The convention programme planners assigned me to two other panels: both squee (a word going in the Oxford English Dictionary). One on queer Dax (Star Trek), and one on the transgressive nature (alleged) of Miss Phryne Fisher. That last one proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that 9Worlds is not all about the SF/F/H.

This year is also the second year that I have done the 9Worlds one weekend, then the World SF Convention (WorldCon) the next. This time the second convention is in another country – Finland. More on that later. So, I intended on pacing myself, including in the hotel department. That meant I arrived on Friday morning rather than Thursday. Sad to miss the Cheese and Cheese – from all the reports I saw, people enjoyed it immensely.

Anyway, on arrival I met with several friends, but I sought out a space to get my head into panel space. Especially since I’d been told that based on the pre-con selections on the Grenadine app the first panel I was going on was among the most popular. In Cremant, the huge room, no less. That panel was one I had put forward and proposed to explore the police in the supernatural novel series of Ben Aaronovitch (PC Peter Grant) and Paul Cornell (Shadow Police) from the points of view of three women who work in policing. First thing a disclaimer – none of us were talking from the points of view of our agencies, but from our generic experiences. I’m really pleased that the audience enjoyed it – and the questions were thought-provoking and intelligent. Far from easy, but respectful, particularly about our views on inclusion and diversity in the modern UK police forces. I said it at the panel, I love the fact that both Aaronovitch and Cornell ensured their books are fairly representative of London, which the police do try to bring – following Sir Robert Peel’s ethos the police being of the people to police the people. The police lead in some areas, and do lag behind in others. We spoke about many other things, but that’s an important point for me. To bring home the point, quite a few colleagues of mine took part in Brighton’s LGBT+ Pride march on the Saturday of the convention, led by our Director General flying the rainbow flag that also has our emblem.

I’m a participant at a similar panel at WorldCon, and I’m fascinated to see how it will be different.

The rest of my Friday and all of Saturday I could attend what panels I wanted to, catch up with friends, and spend a bit of time in my hotel room to decompress. Plus admire the imagination of cosplayers – highlights were the 13th Doctor, the TARDIS full of bras, and the lemmings for their choreography. Loads of others, but they stand out.

I attended Marina Berlin’s talk on women writing about war, which skated over a complex topic. As she said, there is a long history of women writing war in SF/F, but she limited herself to three authors writing war in the 21st century – Naomi Novik, Karin Lowacher, and Kameron Hurley. I’ve not read Novik or Lowacher, but devoured Hurley’s Belle Dame Apocrypha. Berlin compared them with tropes identified in men writing war in SF/F, which irked even though I could see where she was coming from. Still, it gave me some pointers for the WorldCon panel I’m moderating on women writing Military SF at WorldCon.

On Saturday I attended the panel on race in SF/F with a wonderfully diverse panel in terms of gender and ethnic backgrounds. The panel’s strength lay in discussing the rich variety of experience through which they both write and read/consume. Pretty much all of them had grown up in one culture, some as part of a diaspora, others not, then all moved elsewhere. I agree with them that SF/F’s gift is the ability to grab tropes and tear them apart, and the issue of SF/F being metaphorical. They discussed the damage caused by people being scared of accusations of cultural appropriation – but that there is of course a responsibility to check and avoid stereotyping and making the alien other exotic. White-washing is damaging, and a panellist noted that other cultures (Han Chinese was singled out) do the same and it doesn’t make it any less damaging. They also discussed complex issues to do with translating from one (mostly English, but not exclusively) flooding out other voices. All in all, a thought-provoking panel.

I attended John J Johnston’s talk about archaeology in Doctor Who, which was great fun.

Sunday was my day of panels. I was on three, and I am so glad for the generous gap between them. My panels also bounced from squee to serious to squee.

The queer Dax panel was a lot of fun, but made some really good points. Neth is a great moderator who took pains to ensure that everyone on the panel had a different queer perspective. I had been a bit nervous that I wouldn’t be able to contribute much and I had to confess that I’m not a Trek fan. I do love the love of the Trek fans, though, especially those on this panel. But, my fears were unfounded, and once my brain busted through the laying Stargate memories over DS9 ones, all was good.

I had also been a bit nervous about the Robots, AI, and the Labour Market panel I had put forward, was moderating, and was in the second biggest room. Back in February 2017 I listened to a BBC World Service programme about robots and AI, and the fear of them taking over work as we know it. It was an excellent panel (available here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04rq0px?ocid=socialflow_twitter)  that I thought ripe for discussion at 9Worlds. Turned out I was correct with an incredibly knowledgeable panel from both a diverse set of writing and other work experience. To open up to the audience meant we could only really talk for about 45 minutes, and we could have spoken for a lot longer. I fear we only scratched the surface of some difficult questions, but I am pleased that the point of ‘AI’ coding being value neutral was totally trashed. It’s actually a really dangerous idea thinking that coding is value neutral. We also brought in a fair bit of real world stuff, and the role that SF can play – again the let’s explore and bust open the tropes point. I think the panel also strongly made the point that definitions matter – most of the robots and AIs cited as doing certain things are neither robots or AI. The audience again didn’t disappoint with some excellent questions, and also some good Twitter conversations.

Final panel for me of the convention and a fabulous one about just how transgressive the Honourable Phryne Fisher is. Wonderfully, one of the panellists cosplayed as Dr Mack and there are some fab pics out there of her with some Miss Fisher cosplayers. While the show does have its problems, the love we all have for it shone through (I adore the fact that Pat Cadigan is now going to give it a go on the strength of our enthusiasm!!). Personally, I am grateful for the audience member who knows far more about Melbourne’s socio-economic history than I do who chose to share that knowledge fully in the spirit of 9Worlds.

Then, all too fast, the inevitable end of another wonderful 9Worlds. My only regret – not being able to go to all the panels I wanted to, and not catching up with all the people I wanted to. Some of them I hope to see in Helsinki, but otherwise, next time.

I tweeted at some point that if there was a motto for 9Worlds it would be to: keep on learning!

Review: Denial

01/08/2010 20:02:14

Graffito in Köln, 2010

I nearly missed this film and only caught it because a friend, Dr D, had spotted it and wanted to see it. I’m glad she did, and glad we able to find a session that wasn’t sold out. I must say that I am suspicious about how responsive the cinema industry is to suddenly popular films, versus “blockbusters” that tank. Anyway, see it we did last night at the nearly full screening at Clapham Picturehouse.

It tells the story of two historians – one British, one American – who clash over their scholarly interpretation of an event within living memory. The Brit takes the Yank to court in the UK  in a libel case because the Yank accused the Brit of being a racist. The American proves her case against the Brit, aided by her amazing team of British lawyers.

Or, to be more precise, the film charts the first personal encounter American historian Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt had with British scholar David Irving in the USA. He challenged her during a lecture about her work on people who deny that the Holocaust happened the way it did. In 1996 he sued her and her publisher, Penguin, for defamation using the British courts where the burden of proof lays on the defendant. The case rested on the book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, published by Penguin in 1994. The judgement itself was made by The Hon. Mr Justice Gray in 2000 and is worth reading, especially given current events.Be warned, though: a version that pops up in google searching takes you to Irving’s site with an annotated and amended version of the judgement.

The film itself is a fairly tight courtroom drama, with some nice nods to differences between British and US legal systems and traditions. The acting from all concerned is first rate, and the script deals with difficult questions of denying one’s immediate, all-to-human reaction, to win a case that seemed simple but really wasn’t. The difficulty was to keep the Holocaust from becoming the issue, and to keep the entire focus on those who misinterpret the historical record (deliberately, or a result of cognitive bias – the difference crucial but a hairline splits them) to deny the Holocaust either happened, or if it did that it didn’t target the Jews, and wasn’t part of Hitler’s plans. Bearing in mind the film is based on court records and Lipstadt’s book about the trial, it was interesting to see character development as Lipstadt and Barrister Richard Rampton QC slowly come to understand each other. I like the little touch of the first day of hearings where Lipstadt refuses to bow her head because she is an American, but by the day of the judgement she does so. The film had moments of gentle humour to break what could have been fairly tedious legal talk.

It also had a sequence that left the audience silent. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a nearly full cinema where for a lengthy sequence there was no noise beyond the film. It was when Lipstadt and her legal team visit Auschwitz.

The timing of the release of this film is probably one reason for its popularity. It premiered in the UK on 27 January 2017, International Holocaust Memorial Day. The day that Donald Trump, newly inaugurated President of the USA, issued a statement from the White House that for the first time did not specifically mention the Jews. While incompetence cannot in all fairness be ruled out, the subsequent actions are too close to neo-Nazi tropes to support the idea it was a mistake. The White House doubled down on there being other victims, which is true. But, crucially, the Jews were especially targeted. Lipstadt has commented on there being a spectrum of Holocaust denialism: from total (hard) denial, to a softer version. Regardless, any denial of the historical facts in this case is anti-semitic.

I would recommend this film anyway, but it’s especially pertinent for now. Not only as a warning, but also about ways to confront such lies.

I wrote this blog back in 2007, thought the article itself was from the mid-1990s. It’s about Doctor Who’s depiction of World War II and Nazism, but if you scroll through that there’s a personal bit at the end.

Rogue One: Adding to that Story from a Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Away

My first blog post at this new location was all about Star Wars, written just after I had seen The Force Awakens. I won’t go over old ground too much because my views haven’t really changed since then. Suffice it to say, I was in the slightly younger edge of the target age for Star Wars IV: A New Hope when it first came out back in the 1970s, bang in the age bullseye for Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, and slightly over the target age range for Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. I was disappointed by the first trilogy, but loved Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

Having read some reviews and dipped into the new ‘established wisdom’ (or so it seems), I’ve been thinking about why I like the ones I like, and where I think the discordance is.

A New Hope remains a cracking good adventure that deftly introduces a bunch of characters you quickly begin to like. It helps that they’re tropes, to a large extent, but with elements of originality and played well to take the predicable edge off. Its place in the annals of successful blockbuster film-making is well-earned. Empire is the near-perfect sequel – characters and situations flow almost seamlessly from Hope. It doesn’t seem to be a re-hash, but actually the story beats are similar enough. Empire remains a firm favourite of mine, but truth be told I know it would struggle as a standalone. Jedi is immense fun, and while the adventure continues apace I have trouble with the character arcs. I think it’s where the flaws in how George Lucas approaches storytelling are first made obvious. I am referring to the jarring revelations about Luke and Leia’s relationship. I remain of the view that Lucas made that bit up as a tack-on.

Even though I was never part of Star Wars fandom, I did feel the gap between Jedi and Phantom Menace. In a way, it was similar to that experienced by Doctor Who fans of the original series that stopped regular TV broadcast in 1989 and didn’t return to TV until 2005. There were rumours, often quashed, and then when the rumours became real it never seemed quite real until cinemas were booked and tickets went on sale.

And, yes, I was one of those terribly disappointed by how Star Wars returned. I think that the main trouble was in the casting of Anakin (too young in the first, and the worst actor possible to play him as a troubled teenager and young adult). We should have seen a study in the descent from troubled good to pure evil that is yet redeemable by Luke’s innocent belief that his father cannot be all bad (or what does it mean for him?). Also, I don’t think the story beat was in sync with the middle trilogy. After all, why the need to have a whole series added in to tell the key story of the Clone Wars if it was all done so masterfully?

Having said that, though, I do still enjoy watching them.

I was wary of Force Awakens, but blown away by it. I rarely go to the cinema these days (lots of reasons why) so to go an see a film twice on its first release is a bit deal for me. I recognise that nostalgia plays a role in my love of it, but there is more to it than that. I’ve seen comment that it’s just a copy of A New Hope, but I don’t think it’s that simple either. I think people are confusing a particular plot structure that works because the characters and set-pieces flow (Jedi’s the same as Hope, only it didn’t work quite as well because the character arc rang a discordant note, in my opinion).

My ranking of the Star Wars films in order are: Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, Force Awakens, Jedi, Revenge of the Sith, Attack of the Clones, and then Phantom Menace. My favourite watching order is IV, V, (I), II, III, VI, VII.

Which brings me to Rogue One.

I am aware of a lot of nonsense surrounding it connected to the horrible political space the world is in currently. Some of it surfaced around the time Force Awakens was released and is entirely in the GamerGate and Sad/Rabid Puppies world as far as I’m concerned. I’m a Doctor Who fan and I have never been able to fathom the ‘fan as hater’ thing. Rabid hatred totally out of all proportion, and so often targeted against people who are just making entertainment, and in some small cases trying to make said entertainment reflect and appeal to a wider audience than just white, straight, cis men who speak English as their first and only language.

I watched some of the trailers, which made me smile as I realised the whole object of the film was to tell the tale of the many Bothans who died bringing the plans of the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance. Only it doesn’t, really, but that’s okay. It tells the story of Jyn Erso and a rag-tag bunch of interesting characters thrown together – mostly reluctantly – to steal the plans of the highly secret Death Star to a Rebel Alliance struggling to stay allied. It’s a great romp, with real heart in terms of the terrible effects of tyranny on mostly ordinary people.

I have a feeling it has made as many continuity errors as it fixed.

I admired the CGI that brought back Peter Cushing OBE to the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, but was also distracted by it. The odd twitching of his facial muscles…

But, the character arcs were terrific, and the battles spectacular and actually awful. If you know the Star Wars saga reasonably well, then you knew the inevitable conclusion, and it drove to it in what I thought was perfect sense and with a chaotic sense of humour (the rebellion are clearly not great strategists). It neatly stitched the first trilogy to the second with Senator Bail Organa getting his adoptive daughter Leia into the action to take the stolen plans to safety from a terrible space battle via an old friend in hiding who might be able to help…

Nine Worlds Geek Fest 2016

I have been to each and every Nine Worlds to date, and have blogged my thoughts about them previously: 20132014 and 2015.

The big change was the venue. Nine Worlds has shifted from Heathrow to Hammersmith, in part because of the trouble that the last venue caused, but also because of location and the plans the organisers have (as I understand it – apologies if I’ve got that horribly wrong! Happy to amend). This year we were at the Novotel West London, a large convention hotel quite close to the bus, overground and underground hub and near a range of food options. Ironically, perhaps, because the venue put on reasonably priced food and drink, and a decent range (given the usual caveats of convention food). Not a lot of choice, but they did cater as far as they could for diverse diets. Even though it was in the convention handbook,  I think people didn’t realise that the convention had a minimum spend to meet – I don’t know if they did, but I hope they did.

The main bar was fab, and we were lucky with the weather being sunny. It meant we could spill out to the outside areas. The bar staff were such a contrast to the staff last year it’s really not fair to compare them. They actually worked as you would expect bar staff to – actually serve you drinks you want, and then deal with the payment, in a reasonable time. They responded to peak times, and were efficient in clearing away mess. They also replenished the much-needed water supply in a way that I don’t think people really noticed – apart from those of us who had noticed the tardiness at the last hotel over that very matter. The other bars were a not quite as well stocked, but that was to be expected, and all the staff I interacted with during the convention were polite and keen to help. I learned during the convention that Nine Worlds had trained some of them in diversity matters, which showed. I heard and saw a few people say that staff had commented favourably about the convention, too, which is nice.

I had no problems at all with the free wi-fi in any part of the convention space, or my room. That was an astonishing contrast to the last four hotels I’ve stayed at either for Sf conventions or my work where it’s been abysmal.

(Outside of the convention the hotel was a little bit less brilliant; the check in on Thursday was slow even for those of us who had checked in online, and I noticed the difference in breakfast – and reflected how I was more used to better service once the convention deal had stopped. Nothing dramatic, by the way, but noticeable.)

The convention itself featured many cool cosplayers, and I massively rate the tokens method having been at another convention this year where they have a costume event. I have too many to list that were amazing – I did think the Zombie London 2012 Gamesmaker was fab, and I loved the two EU flags.

There was the same sense of learning from errors of the past, but also settling into an expectation of being a safe space for the diversity of sexual orientation and gender, and disabilities (including invisible), and for families and children of all ages. There is still a problem with being overwhelmingly white, but I am aware the organisers are painfully aware of it and trying loads of things to address it. My own personal commitment is to step down from any panel if there is a person of colour who wants to be on it but for whatever reason wasn’t invited.

My interactions with the various volunteers were all positive, and helpful. Clearly they knew what they were doing, and loved it.

I wasn’t involved at all in the organising, but have always been on panels. I knew they experimented with a slightly different approach to the past organisation along tracks. I think it worked quite well, but there were a couple of things that need improving for next time. Timing being one – seemed a bit long at some stages, and then at meal times a little rushed. Not a drama, and I wonder if it was because there was a lot to do with the change of venue, and four years in a row is a substantial commitment for any convention. Words can be hollow, but I would volunteer in a heartbeat (or two) if my job, writing life and health weren’t quite so demanding. I don’t want to volunteer and then not deliver. If things change, then I will reconsider. I love Nine Worlds and its ethos, and enjoy being a part of it.

I was on three panels, all of which were tops. Really good other panellists, and terrific audiences. They were the one on Star Wars and canon, Doctor Who canon (2005+ series, but of course we went back – timey-wimey allows that, nay encourages it!), and Ewoks! I had been a little bit nervous about the Star Wars ones because while I love the movies (in general) I don’t consider myself a fan. My fears allayed very quickly because both panels were about diversity of experience, of course. It’s Nine Worlds. Which meant that the usually fraught with danger discussion of Doctor Who‘s canon was lovely and fun. Little note: we were able to talk about Rogue One for the first Star Wars panel in the light of the new trailer released just before the panel; and in total contrast, we held a minute’s silence for the memory of Kenny Baker, who died over the weekend and we got the news just before the Ewoks! panel. We then celebrated his life, especially his role as an Ewok.

No blanket forts this year (as far as I’m aware), but there was Panel Panel before Bifröst (the disco bit of it). I do hope it returns next year.

But, mostly, for me the three days were full of great conversations about all sorts of things with an incredible range of people. If there’s a mark of how much I enjoyed it, it might be this. I am going to World Con in Helsinki next year. There’s a little bit of uncertainty with my job next year (nothing bad, but I am aware that until I know for certain what I’ll be doing after May next year I can’t really plan beyond my already made commitments) and I had decided to give Nine Worlds a break and just do World Con. But, instead, I’m going to incorporate planning around the potential to do both Nine Worlds and World Con, and have a bit of a holiday in and around Helsinki.

Adam Sisman, John LeCarré: The Biography

A few days ago I finished reading Adam Sisman’s biography of writer John LeCarré, pseudonym of David Cornwell.

I think the first I ever read of LeCarré’s work was The Little Drummer Girl, and I saw the movie at around about the same time, which was I think when it came out on videotape. I was in my late teens and discovering the world and its politics, safe in my family home. My father is an academic, specifically an economist, even more specifically an economic historian. We had a fairly impressive library at home, and both my parents encouraged us (my brother and I) to visit other libraries. I read voraciously and pursued various obsessions. As a young teenager I had discovered Anne Frank’s diary while we visited Amsterdam, and following that read everything I could find on the Holocaust. Politics and current affairs were always discussed at home, and even as a young child I had been picking up on the terrorism of the 1970s as remote to Australia as it was then.

The Little Drummer Girl was an eye-opener for me. Charlie’s idealism spoke to me at exactly the right age, I think, and the tale is cautionary in the way it shows how complex these things are. How difficult – there is no single right or wrong side, but numerous of each. Makes it easy to cower in inactivity, but actually one of the messages I took from the book is that small actions build into more powerful changes.

I am writing this in 2016 with a Cold War between the USSR and the Western democracies having disappeared into a strange narrative, and the Middle Eastern and West Asian wars having fractured and splintered into multiple deadly offshoots that few understand but many worsen through a simplistic narrative. Spy thrillers like the James Bond books, the Bourne books and movies, etc, etc, etc, all play their part in shaping those narratives. As does political discourse, the advantage of hindsight, the stories written by the victors, the victims…

I majored in politics and political history at university, specialising in international affairs. I took multiple units in Soviet politics and history when the USSR still existed, and we were caught by surprise when the break-up happened so quickly. When George Bush Snr was up against Michael Dukakis in 1988 I took a year-long course in US politics. I dove into the safety of theoretical politics and related philosophies during 1989 and 1990, but dipped my toe into the broiling mess of what was then called the Arab-Israeli conflict. I learned to be wary of any simplistic dichotomous explanations, which I have applied to my work during my career. One of the things that appealed to me about LeCarré’s writing is how well he weaved those complexities and contradictions together.

As the biography points out more than once, one of the reasons for LeCarré’s success as a novelist was his apparently uncanny ability to anticipate changes in the world. I don’t think it was uncanny, or particularly prescient, but does illustrate a mind able to see patterns in chaos. I think LeCarré keeps his eyes and ears open, and at some point fairly early on in his life was able to work out that human beings are bundles of contradictions. He is clearly very clever and quick – all great ingredients for an author of books that, for all their adventures and thrills, have people at their heart.

One little scene has remained with me from that first reading of the Little Drummer Girl. When Charlie tells the Mossad recruiters the story of her father returning home from prison, broken, and waiting for someone else to open the doors in her home for him. Then, later, them disabusing her of that tale. The vignette fascinates me because it neatly encapsulates the human capability for self-delusion.

When I read in the biography David Conwell’s description of his father returning home from a stint in prison for fraud it clicked immediately with Charlie’s story as told in a novel written decades later. Self-delusion is a key theme of the biography; the very human way in which we create our narratives about our lives, often without realising it. Sisman’s description of his process in writing a proper biography of a subject who is still alive (at time of writing – 2016 has been a cruel year for celebrities), who has part of his life shrouded in secrecy because of where he worked (MI5 and MI6, variously during the 1940s and 1950s – a very different time and place to now), and who has such a difficult relationship with his constantly scamming father. Then there is the media lens, assumptions made, perspectives filtered through new events and disclosures. Different points of view.

Cornwell strikes me as a principled man who has his flaws, but who doesn’t? I am impressed by the research he does for his books, but also when it’s clear he is writing from his heart. I was interested in what Sisman was able to write about Cornwell’s times with the two British secret services, and also interested in learning more about LeCarré’s writing processes. I am sure that some of my readers will find the tales of book-to-film/TV series to be interesting. For those bits I recommend the book; but if you’re after tales of real-life spying derring-do, then I suggest you stick with the stuff about Ian Fleming… although the notes about the veracity of autobiographical narrative are pertinent.

One last thing – I am amused by the biographer’s name being Sisman. SIS being the initials for the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. Sadly, though, I know there will be those who will read far more than amusement into that coincidence… (as I write this I have been reading conspiracy theories stating that MI5 or MI6 will be erasing pencil votes in today’s referendum in the UK…).