Wednesday, 27 November 2013

5 Green Films That Undermine Their Own Message

The environment is important kids, we need it t live and junk. Film makers for the last couple of decades have been super keen to teach kids the importance of looking after the environment, apparently missing the fact that all their children are going to hear is “Because Mummy and Daddy drive cars, you and all the whales are going to die!”

What’s worse however, is that most of these films, one way or another, end up undermining the very message they’re trying to spread.


Photo Credit: Ben K Adams via Compfight cc

This is my personal favourite on this list, mainly because, like most Pixar films, I can’t sit through it without bursting into tears like some sort of baby. The film opens on possibly one of the most kid friendly apocalypses you can imagine. No seas of acid, no global warming, no meteorites or super strong rabies variants. Nope, this is the trashpocalypse. The Earth came to a halt because there was too much littering.

This is fine if you’re a kid, as “not littering” is something you can realistically contribute to, unlike global warming, which you just have to watch in despair as your mum drives you to school in a 4x4.

The Day After Tomorrow

This film is basically Independence Day but with the gigantic alien spaceships being replaced with really bad weather. At the start we see the noble Dennis Quaid scientist desperately trying to persuade the evil politicians to sign Kyoto and not kill us all. They don’t and we all die.

Unfortunately, any moral you might have gleaned from this film is spoiled by the fact that the science is terrible. There are scenes where see people literally run away from the cold and escape from it by shutting a door just in time. In one seen we see a cold breeze literally freeze an American flag in mid flight, ignoring the fact that to do that the flag would have to be so damp it would be unable to fly anyway.

Fern Gulley: The Last Rainforest

Not to be confused with Gurn Fully, the tale of a man who pulls funny faces, then is forced to find his way to the home of the wind gods with his tongue hanging out after his face gets stuck that way. Also not to be confused with the film Avatar, which ripped this film off so hard it really is amazing that the Robin Williams bat didn’t sue James Cameron.

The message of the film amounts to “cutting down the Rainforest is bad”. The message stumbles a little bit though, since it turns out the creatures of the rainforest have the power to reduce a human being to the size of an insect at will.

Faced with power like that, you can forget chopping down the rainforest. We should nuke it from orbit just to be sure.

Free Willy

Free Willy is a touching story about the importance of looking after wild life and protecting the world around us. It shows us that keeping a whale in captivity is wrong and that it should be released into the wild where it can run (or swim) free.

Of course, this is slightly undermined in two ways. Firstly, not a single kid saw that film and came away not wanting their very own trained killer whale. Two, Willy, with his damaged dorsal fin and psychological damage from years in captivity, would almost certainly die when he reached the ocean.

The Simpsons Movie

Back when it was good the Simpsons often dealt with environmental themes, and continued to do so long after the show stopped ever being funny. The cartoon saw a brief return to form for The Simpsons Movie, where the town of Springfield’s constant pollution lead to the evil, maniacal head of the EPA isolating the entire town under a glass dome in a way that bore no resemblance to the Stephen King book “The Dome” that came out shortly afterwards.

We see that our careless, selfish attitude to the environment utterly destroys it, hence the giant glass dome. Except that at the end of the film the dome is destroyed and everything goes exactly back to normal. Like, exactly back to normal. Nothing is done about the deadly nuclear power plant or the heaps of toxic waste being dumped in the lake. It’s forgotten about.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

#52 Bioshock Infinite: In Defence of the Violence in Bioshock Infinite

Last night I finished Bioshock Infinite. Then I went and ate a pizza and had a long sit down because frankly, I was over-stimulated like an angry toddler and needed to calm down before nap-time.

Oh, and after the very next line break I am going to start raining down a hellfire of spoilers which you do not want to read unless you’ve played the game yet. Seriously, this is a great game but it’s also a game you don’t want to have spoiled, so off you fuck. Oh, and for good measure I’m probably going to spoil the movie Trance, although to be honest that’s less of a tragedy.

Bye bye.

Okay, is everybody left? Yeah? That guy at the back? Are you cool? Good, I thought you were but I just wanted to check.

Spoilers start here.

I really hope we can be done with the tired old “Are videogames art?” thing now. This week I enjoyed two pieces of media content that dealt with the unreliability of your own memories and ended with a gigantic mind fuck where someone’s memories weren’t what they thought they were and the hero of your story turned out to be something else entirely. One was Trance, which stayed with me the entire length of the walk from my seat in the cinema to the first set of traffic lights I passed on my way home, where I parted ways with the friends I’d been seeing it with. The other was Bioshock Infinite, which I can already tell is going to stay with me for a good while longer. Does it affect you as much as say, the Mona Lisa, Mice and Men, or Citizen Kane? Well I don’t know how much any of those three things affected you, it turns out that stuff’s subjective, but if you can technically describe Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo as art, then this game passes all the tests by a mile.

But I’m not writing this to add to the white water rapids of gushing reviews that have already been written about Bioshock Infinite, if you’re reading this I assume you’ve played the game, so you know it’s good.

No, I wrote this to talk of one of the few criticisms about the game that have come about (always prefaced by more gushing about what a great game it is). Some have been saying that the game is too violent, and this time it’s not Keith Vaz or Tipper Gore. It’s Kirk Hamilton and Kotaku, and Cliff Bleszinski, one of the videogame designers behind Gears of War who happily describes himself as “the guy that brought you a chainsaw gun”. The argument that both people make is that Bioshock Infinite is such a masterpiece of world building, story and character that it detracts from that to have spend so much of the game slamming a set of spinning fishhooks into people’s faces and proving right PC Danny Butterman’s theory that there's a point on a man's head where if you shoot it, it will blow up.

I empathise. When I first sat down to play the game last week, after a while I tweeted this:
And the fact that gamers and game designers are asking these questions and expecting more from games is a good thing, and I hope that the nuanced, character-driven game that uses mechanics other than violence to move the plot forward comes along soon – assuming you believe we don’t already have it in games like Grim Fandango, or Portal, or Fallout 3 which I played through mostly by talking my way out of problems or running away (although personally, while these are all great games none of them quite delivered the gut punches that Bioshock Infinite was dolling out).

However, on this one case I believe they’re wrong, that the violence in Bioshock Infinite is a core part of the story, not just an add-on that’s there because you need shooting to break up the plot.

Yes, if this development of this game was anything like the last one, the fact that it was a shooter probably came before the plot about sky racists, time travel and dimension hopping. The original Bioshock was set on a tropical island full of genetically modified Nazis before it was set in Ayn Rand’s extremely wet dream (do you see what I did there?), and a lot of the gameplay mechanics had been nailed down long before there was a story. However, the story they ended up with in Bioshock Infinite was a story that embraced the fact it was built around a violent gameplay mechanic.

I’ve talked before about how zombie movies aren’t just violent, they’re about violence, and to certain extent the same is true here. When Booker and Elizabeth walk into a ticket office, only for Booker to end up murdering everybody in there, Elizabeth is terrified and disgusted. Throughout the game we are given reminders of the terrible things that Booker has done, at the battle of Wounded Knee and as a Pinkerton. We see Elizabeth go from being horrified at the violence Booker commits, to accepting it as a necessary evil, to performing her first murder and eventually leading a brutal attack on the city of New York.

By the end of the game we discover that everything that happens, from Elizabeth’s imprisonment to the city of Columbia itself are all consequences of Booker’s attempts to escape his violent past. In one world he escapes it by drinking too much and getting into gambling debts, in another world he does it by becoming born again as Zachary Comstock, and building a floating city capable of an even greater scale of violence and genocide.

Which is all very well, but that’s back story. Why does Booker have to be ‘sploding heads left right and centre in game?

Because, while in films and books the rule is always “Show don’t tell” in games you learn by doing. In the original Bioshock the fact that you’re a brainwashed slave has emotional punch because you realise that it’s you who has been blindly following instructions since the game started. When you arrive at the scene of Booker/Zachary’s baptism at the end of the game, you don’t need to be told that it all seems weirdly familiar, because you’re already getting déjà vu from the baptism at the beginning of the game.

So if you’re playing a violent character it’s not enough to know that he did violent things, you need to see that violence, and perform that violence yourself, and see how others react to it. When you discover that in another life your character razes cities to the ground, it’s made more believable knowing the trail of bodies that brought you to that point.

There are some great stories that can be told with games that don’t need any violence at all. But this story was about a violent man, and it’s no worse for it.

Monday, 4 March 2013

How I Got Published

So Chuck Wendig’s written a piece about all the misinformation about the publishing industry, and asking writers to use the mighty power of anecdote to shed some light on the process and get rid of any conspiracy theories. I wrote a comment, it turned into a long comment, and eventually it turned into the definitive story of how Mark II got published. Not written, Christ I’m still not sure how you write a publishable book, but this is how it got published, and I think it’s probably a pretty good template to work to. So I’m sticking this up here as a link to refer to so I don’t have to repeat myself again.

Mark II got published by Tindal Street Press in 2006. It was, I believe, the third book-length piece of fiction I had written and attempted to submit to agents, so by that time I was intimately familiar with the cycle of submission and rejection letters – my favourite remains a standard form letter I got when I was 15 that someone had scribbled “Stick at it!” across.

I wrote a book. I redrafted the book. I got some friends who I trusted to read it and tell me which bits were crap, then I redrafted it again. Then I paid my sister and her friends £20 to go through looking for typos, because she was 15 and I didn't have any scruples about child labour when it came to siblings. Then I went through it one more time to polish it.

This wasn't the first book I'd gone through this process with, and I already had (and still have) a nice thick folder full of rejection letters. This time I decided, rather than spending a small fortune on printing and postage (Again, this was 2004/2005, and no literary agent worth their salt would dream of accepting email submissions in those days) I decided to send out a bunch of query letters. I found my agents by going through the Writers’ and Artists’ year book with an orange highlighter, marking out anyone who didn’t explicitly say they hated teenage or science fiction.

The query letter consisted of three things: That I was 19 years old and was taking the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia (a prestigious course, although I’ve no idea how much this helped- the agent that eventually accepted me didn’t know I was taking the course when we met), a short sentence describing my book, and a further sentence explaining why I was interested in that agent, customised for each letter to prevent it sounding like a mass mailing (which it was).

I sent off 28 query letters and kept a spreadsheet of the results. I still have that spreadsheet. I don’t know exactly how many of those agents asked to see the manuscript, but I remember it was the majority which meant that I could include a cover letter that said “as requested, here is my synopsis and first three chapters...”

I do know that out of that 28, 5 never responded, I eventually received 13 rejection letters, although most of them chose to read the book first. 7 requested that I send them a synopsis and first three chapters, and then I never heard from them again.

The one agency replied to me query letter asking to see the whole manuscript (I expect it was a screw up on an interns part, as traditionally they look for 3 chapters and a synopsis, as does everyone). This was the agency that eventually called me up asking me to come and visit, and who eventually agreed to represent the book. I suspect (though don’t know for certain) the reason was a combination of genuine enthusiasm for the book, the passing resemblance its tone had to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and that they also had Never Let Me Go on their books and thought cloning was going to be big that publishing year.

From there we went through the whole cycle again, they approached numerous publishers, many of whom had nice things to say about the book, some recommending we target YA publishers. Eventually one publisher, Tindal Street Press took us on. Shortly afterwards it was also sold to Fazi Editore in Italy, and the Italian translation actually netted me a bigger advance and twice as many sales. The Italian translation also allowed me to say I share a publisher with Richard Castle, which I'm eternally grateful for.

Mark II was published in 2006 by Tindal Street Press, with a launch party in my home city of Leicester. Since then the book’s sold roughly 3,000 copies worldwide, and once a year I buy a meal with my PLR payments. I’ve had a couple of film companies inquire about the movie rights, but as near as I can tell film companies inquire about the rights to everything, so I’ve never got more than a little excited about that.

My second novel was wildly different from the first. Both books were science fiction, but my second had actual spaceships and aliens in, so my agents were a bit at a loss as to what to do with it. We parted on good terms and I entered the whole cycle once again. I’m currently working on a third book (well, fourth, but the third one is banished to a bottom drawer for the time being) and have received a lot of “loved it, but don’t know how to sell it” style rejections for book two, which I’m considering attempting to self publish, since I think I’ve got a pretty good idea how to sell it.

So that’s how Mark II went from being a lengthy word document on my laptop to an actual book with pages and a cover and everything. Although name-dropping UEA probably gave me a bit of a boost in the being-taken-seriously stakes, I started out with zero contacts and no more insight into the publishing industry than you can get by reading about it and by building up a stack of rejection letters. If I had to put Mark II’s getting down to any quality other than “it being a good book” (naturally, they’re all good books) I’d say it’s a willingness to accept many, many rejection letters as a natural part of the process, not the end of the world (some times that's easier than others), taking the time to get the presentation right, and being very, very lucky.

Monday, 28 January 2013

#51 Zombie Lab: Let’s All Go to the Museum!

Hi! Yes! I’ve been away for a while. I don’t want to go into details, but it turns out there was a completely unrelated apocalypse that coincidentally was due to happen on the same date as the supposed “Mayan” apocalypse. The only person who knew how to avert it was Bing Crosby, who concealed clues to the only hope to mankind’s salvation in the lyrics of several of his biggest hits.

Anyway, long story short, I managed to avert the rise of the Spider Clowns, but then I was stranded in Reykjavik and it took me three months to hitch hike back to somewhere with Internet access. It wasn’t that far to travel, I’m just very unappealing to drivers.

But I’m not here to talk about that, there are much more interesting things for us to discuss.

So let’s talk about museums. I love a good museum. Whenever friends come to visit me in Norwich I’m always keen to recommend that they visit our famous Teapot Museum, then they ask if I’m being sarcastic and I say “No, I’m not being sarcastic. Why?”

One place that has a lot of museums is London, and among my favourite museums there in the Science Museum because, frankly, it has lots of planes and a lunar module and I think that’s cool. (Also cool: Novelty teapots).

This week the science museum is combing two things I love (Science. Museums.) with something else I love (Zombies) to bring about the Science Museum Zombie Lab. The Zombie Lab is going to take place over this Wednesday evening (January 30th, 6:45pm to 10pm) and Saturday and Sunday afternoons (February 2nd/3rd, 12pm to 5pm).

I’m going to be there, and all of you should be there too. Here are a few of things you ought to expect:

Games and Activities
Zombie Costume Competition
Exactly what it says on the tin. Come dressed as a zombie on Wednesday evening, and if people are convinced enough that you’re a shambling corpse they’ll give you a prize. Or hit you in the head with a shovel. It depends.

This one looks fun- the idea is that the zombie safe house doors will be slamming shut in ten minutes, and you have to prove you aren’t a zombie by completing a number of tasks.

Remember that bit in Shaun of the Dead where they try and navigate through a horde of zombies by groaning and shuffling? Zombie LARP regulars among our readers may remember this account of why we’re not longer allowed to do that in game.

Well collective behaviour experts Edd Codling and Nikolai Bode of the University of Essex will be looking to test just how good a zombie you can be in what they’re describing as a “predator-prey” game.

The Trial
This is my personal favourite activity at the event, purely on the grounds that I helped write some of the support materials for it. Yep, Mary and Grant (or Serious Business to give them their official name) the minds behind Zombie LARP and the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter live game we reported on last year, have come up with a new creation. Since, sadly, the Science Museum was apparently unwilling to let us charge headlong around the museum firing Nerf guns at one another, they have instead constructed a post-post-apocalyptic world, where the tide is just beginning to turn against the zombies, a cure for the disease has been discovered and society is beginning to rebuild.

People will be asked to take part in the Community Jury Initiative to answer two fundamental questions- are the cured zombies legally responsible for all those people they ate? And should those who didn’t get infected be held responsible for all those zombies they killed? The answers may not be as straight-forward as you think...

UPDATE: You can find out much more about The Trial here.

I’ve written about the zombie apocalypse being used to examine real life issues so many times here you’re probably bored of reading about it, but the Zombie Lab will feature a number of talks that do just that. Daniel Bor (University of Sussex), David Papineau (Kings College London) and author and games writer Naomi Alderman will be talking over whether zombies are conscious as a way of examining what consciousness is. Another talk will look at possible causes of a zombie apocalypse, because there aren’t enough things to be terrified of in the world.

There will also be a special showing of the zombie romance Warm Bodies, which we’ll probably have to get round to reviewing for this site sooner or later.

And that is just scratching the surface (which I’m sure could be worked into a zombie pun, but it’s late and I’ve got some other stuff to write, so you’ll have to come up with that one yourselves). Have a look here to see the full list of stuff the Science Museum is going to have on over the festival, and I’ll see you there!