Friday 17 January 2014

Sherlock's Veiled Victorianism

This is what a feminist looks like.

I watched an episode of Sherlock the other night - not a crusty old version, but the BBC's new souped up version, complete with drug dens, media barons (boo, hiss), parliamentary inquiries (Leveson, anyone?) and Watson suffering from PTSD from his time as a medic in Afghanistan.

And, of course, strong, modern women. Because these aren't the dark ages you know, with women stuck in the kitchen or fanning themselves in the drawing room as they recount their story to Mr Holmes. These are women who assert themselves, who take control of their lives and who consider themselves the equal of men. It's the 21st Century, you see, and the writers are keen to let us know it.

But let us deduce a few facts from the evidence, for all is not as it seems.

Sherlock is slapped repeatedly by a female doctor in full view of everyone at a hospital because he was supposed to be in a relationship with her and he lied to her about... something. What a cad.

Sherlock has his name smeared in the tabloids by a media secretary whom he was having a relationship with. Because he lied. And she turned down the morphine by his hospital bed while he lay recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound, so that he could feel more pain. Because he lied. What a cad.

Watson's wife turns out to be a secret assassin, rather than the person Watson thought she was. She lied to him. And she shot his best friend and hospitalised him.

Does Watson slap her repeatedly for the pain he feels? No. Does he get revenge on her by smearing her name all over the papers or otherwise making a profit out of her? No.

In fact, we're encouraged to feel sorry for Watson's wife - she is not to be seen as a cad. And Watson is essentially told to forget about his own discomfort and concentrate instead on hers. Because otherwise he would be a cad. And she is a woman who, while apparently a cold blooded assassin, cries and looks soft and caring. And vulnerable. She needs help. And sympathy. Whereas Sherlock and Watson just need to accept whatever happens to them, and take it. Like men.

The three women are, in fact, portrayed as victims, because that's what's currently fashionable. The trouble is, it's always been fashionable.

The BBC prides itself on its progressive egalitarianism, on its support for women's rights (it seldom uses the word Feminism) and on its genteel liberalism. So the victimhood of the female characters here is masked. They are portrayed as strong, confident females - the doctor stands firm and erect as she assaults Sherlock in public, the secretary smirks as she reveals how she got the last laugh in the end by profiting from her betrayal, and Watson's wife is given a scene dressed as a ninja and described as a very dangerous woman. Which, of course, is designed to go down well with female viewers. It's called pitching to a target audience.

But it's a thin mask that barely hides the victim status of the characters concerned - women scorned, women wronged, women unfairly judged just because they lied and killed a few people (I mean, who hasn't?). So rather than being a modern, egalitarian rendition of a classic story, it's actually just a throwback to Victorian values, where women aren't perceived as strong enough to take what a man can. They need a break. If a woman is wronged by a man, she deserves redress, for he did not act like a gentleman. If a man is wronged by a woman, well then, hard cheese old chap. Pip pip, stiff upper lip and all that. Just take it. Because women are fragile and emotional, so can't be expected to be judged the same as men or treated the same as men.

This new series of Sherlock is not, in fact, modern at all. It's a period piece. And for all its supposed egalitarianism, so is the BBC, with its studied paternalism and its tender pandering to women as it 'respects' them, while holding a door open for them and putting them on a pedastal.

Friday 10 January 2014

Zombies, Jews and the End of the World.

I watched the movie World War Z the other night. It was more interesting than I thought it would be. I mean, I'd read the novel it was based on, and that was okay - a clever attempt to do something different with the genre. The book was more a collection of short stories, with each one adding something to the underlying narrative, but as a plot device it was a bit lumpy. A lot of stopping and starting. I read about half of it, stopped at the end of one of the stories, then never got round to picking it up again. There was nothing really to make me want to keep reading - it didn't follow one character, and the underlying narrative of how the zombie virus spread didn't interest me overly much. Had I been really into zombies, then maybe I'd have been fascinated enough to carry on, but the whole undead thing doesn't really grab me, as I know it's a pure fantasy that has less chance of happening than an alien invasion. Or, say, a world takeover by the UN. So to me it was just a setting for some interesting characters to do stuff in, and as the characters themselves were just another part of the setting, rather than the driving narrative, I never felt compelled to return to the story at all.

Maybe I'll finish it one day. Maybe I won't.

The movie however, from the original trailer, just looked like a Brad Pitt vehicle, with lots of CGI, Go-Go-Go action and not much else. It certainly didn't look like it had borrowed anything from the book at all.

But it turned out not to be quite as different as I thought - it kept the global outlook, the whole Israel sanctuary thing, and of course, the UN. It also wasn't completely a mindless action flick. I mean, mostly it was, but not completely. You're thrown into the action very early, and it goes all Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow on you, but then it segues into 28 Days later, complete with English accents, with a passing attempt at some science and a view of the Welsh Hills. Or their fake equivalent, anyway.

So I ended up enjoying it more than I thought.

The featurette on the DVD extra was interesting though, especially when some film executive tried to explain the whole zombie phenomenon as 'the fear of death'.

Attempts by movie directors or actors to explain the philosophy behind plot decisions often make me laugh. I mean, these people are obviously very good at their craft, but when it comes to sweeping generalisations about philosophy or the meaning of life (or their own movie) these people are just clueless.

The whole horror genre can be explained as 'the fear of death'. As can disaster movies, war movies, murder mystery movies, action hero movies, etc. It's kind of a dumb explanation that doesn't explain anything, really.

And then of course there was the reference to 9/11, which apparently every action/disaster movie is supposed to be referencing now. As if these kinds of story had never existed before then.

The roots of the zombie movie, and indeed alien invasion movies, don't begin with 9/11. Nor do they begin with the Cold War, as some have alluded to. They don't, in fact, have anything to do with anything in the 20th Century.

The idea of the world being overrun by unstoppable zombies, unstoppable aliens or unstoppable anything is in fact a legacy of Judeo-Christianity. It's just another version of the Apocalypse.

The ancient Jews, while considering themselves the chosen ones, were acutely aware of their fragility. Whether enslaved by Egyptians or crushed by the Romans, they knew that their world could come to an end. And when they were exiled from the Holy Land, that's precisely what they felt was happening to them.

The Christians were also aware of the fragility of world orders. They had witnessed the crushing of the Jewish kingdoms, then the collapsing of the mighty Roman Empire. Born among Greco-Roman ruins, the early Christians expected things to come crashing down any time soon, with mankind extinguished by plague or demons or whatever. It was explicit in the Christian mythology that went on to underpin modern Europe.

And modern America.

America was, and to some extent still is, a profoundly religious country. As the Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, so the first Protestant soon-to-be-Americans were exiled from the collapsing Papal empire in Europe. And they brought their apocalyptic beliefs with them. This is why George Washington warned his fellow Americans about the need for vigilance, in order to maintain their freedom. Not some existential idea of freedom, like human rights (that came later), but actual freedom from that dastardly British Empire which might still try to win the colonies back and enslave free Americans under the yoke of monarchy again.

This is why America, with the mightiest military in the world, has remained so paranoid about being overrun by anarchists, communists and, lately, Islamists. The US military could take on the combined armies of the rest of the world and completely wipe the floor with them. Yet deep in the American psyche remains the fear that they will be overrun as they make their last stand.

And if it's not the godless commies or the fanatical muslims, then it's the mindless zombies or the technologically advanced aliens. Or some awful punishment unleashed either by nature, Gaia or God. Take your pick.

It's part of the very fabric of Western mythology, and it's very, very old. Is it a coincidence that the zombie storming of Israel's Masada-like fortress in World War Z mirrors the orc assault on Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings? No.

"Help, the old virtuous order is being overrun by demonic, evil things."

When it comes to story telling, it's in our Jewish-Christian DNA.

The Apocalypse is coming, it's always coming, so grab your popcorn and stare wide-eyed at the end of the world, just so's you can wonder how you'd survive.

Thursday 2 January 2014

American Warrior - A Review

 I got a Kindle for Christmas, which is quite a technological advance for me - I don't even have a smart phone.

I'm quite pleased with it. It's neat, light and works really well. The whole WI-FI thing, whereby I purchase an ebook from Amazon on my computer, and it downloads it direct to the Kindle, bypassing the computer completely, amazes me.

But I'm easily pleased.

Anyway, I love being able to carry a bunch of books with me wherever I go now, like, say, to a hospital waiting room. Or on a Christmas visit to the in-laws (I'm not the most sociable of people). But what I really like is having portable access to a massive range of self-published, Indie e-books. And there was one book in particular that I had my eye on, and which I was determined to make the first book I read on the Kindle. In fact, it was what swayed me into getting a Kindle in the first place.

I first saw it a month or so ago as a tiny ad on Kboards. It had one of the worst covers I had ever seen on a book, it was billed as $0.99 and it was called American Warrior. It looked awful, and I thought, 'How bad could this be?' So I clicked on the ad link.

Now I'm sure that, somewhere on the net, there's a whole list of dos and don'ts in marketing that says that I, the consumer, really shouldn't have been drawn to clicking that link in the first place. I mean, I really shouldn't have wanted to click that link. Not according to the experts.

Which is why I don't have a career in marketing. I'd suck at it. But I digress.

So anyway, I clicked the link, got past the terrible cover (which has now been changed to something a lot less crappy - no, really, the last cover guy looked like he was made of wax. And was melting), got intrigued by the blurb and was taken with the sample of writing inside.

And I saw immediately that this was not a book to be judged by its cover. Or its cheap price.

The novel charts the journey of Paul Brett, a kid living on the wrong side of the tracks in rural 50's America. Surviving the predations of both his abusive father and the gangs that prowl the migrant camp where he lives, Paul embarks on a life-changing odyssey that takes him from the underside of America, through the underside of the war in Vietnam, and into military prison, itself the underside of the US military. It's a harrowing journey that's packed with some of the most authentic scenes you'll ever find in a work of fiction.

The first thing that struck me about this book was its literary writing style:
Draeger had warned him about such complications, to never go looking for them, because they would seek him out, regardless. And a girl like Sarah Perez had complications written all over her. Even the way she lifted her head up from the microscope and looked at him when it was his turn was complicated. So he ignores her, though it takes all his will power to keep from reaching over and touching her hair as it spreads out before him like a dark red flood, covering everything in its path.
This is not some clumsily written self-published novel hastily typed by some unwitting amateur who has no clue about the art of writing. This is serious, thoughtful prose.

It's not entirely perfect, of course. Literary, artistic prose is hard to write, and there are odd moments when the writing goes a bit opaque, like the author is trying too hard. There's also a couple of occasions when more clarity and less poetry was required, like the passages where it's not clear who is talking or acting.

But in a big project like this, there's bound to be a couple of slip ups. And at least the typo count is reassuringly low. 98% perfect, which is better than a lot of trade published books these days. It's not an exceptionally long book - it's about 300 pages long - but its scope is massive, or so it feels when you're immersed in it. I mean, the sheer detail of life in a slum, of army training, of martial arts, and of war, is impressive. On one occasion the detail did stray over the line into tedium, but I was never tempted to skip parts. There's a documentary quality to the settings, like it's a memoir, and there's clearly a lot that comes from the author's own experiences. But there's also a lot that doesn't. It is a novel, and a lot of research has gone into it. You can feel it. Or rather, you can't.

I mean, sometimes you know that an author has done a ton of research, because as a reader you're being whacked over the head with it, like they want to show you how clever they are or they have to insert it all in a really obvious way, no matter how clumsy it looks. Well, this book isn't like that. I know, as a writer myself, that this author has done a lot of research. But as a reader all I get is the sheer immersion into a scene or a setting, like I've been there before, even though it is as far from my own experiences or anything I've read as I can get. And the characters feel real too, and they appear and disappear throughout the narrative in a more realistic fashion than is normal for fiction. Meet one on a page and you really don't know whether you're going to meet them again or just hear about their rumoured demise/exit/promotion from a second-hand source. In fact, I half expect to read about them again in the local news one day.

Paul's journey is a gritty odyssey, with a fair bit of heart ache to endure, but it's not a miserabilist tale by any means. It's just too damned interesting for that. Paul starts his journey as just another dirt poor kid, but the journey he's on is very much a spiritual one, and you can't help but be moved by his hope, as much as his pain. And in fact, the biggest pain for me was in reaching the end, because I didn't actually want it to end. I wanted a postscript, with all the loose ends tied up. I wanted to follow Paul through the rest of his life. That's how much emotional investment I had in this book.

Which is my way of saying, I really liked this book, and I recommend that you read it. It certainly has a place in the top five of my all time favourite novels. In fact, I'd love to see a movie made about it. I can already picture it as a cross between Forrest Gump, Platoon, Shawshank Redemption and the Thin Red Line. And if you think that's an unlikely mash-up, trust me when I say it works.

I give this book five stars out of five, and if you're interested in taking a look, just click the picture above to be taken to its Amazon site.