Rab Foster has something to crow about

 

© Sword & Sorcery Magazine

 

My first published story of 2022 has just appeared in issue 120 of the online Swords & Sorcery Magazine. As the magazine puts out a new issue each month, and as there are twelve months in a year, issue 120 marks the tenth anniversary of its founding. Thus, I’m honoured to have work featured in this important birthday edition.

 

The story is a fantasy one called Crows of the Mynchmoor and is credited to Rab Foster, the pseudonym I use for my fantasy fiction.  I won’t give anything away about its plot but I will say its setting – moorland, heather, ferns, stone dykes, sheep – is inspired by the upland landscapes around Peebles in the Scottish Borders, where I grew up.  In fact, the name ‘Mynchmoor’ is derived from the real-life Minch Moor, which rises south of the village of Traquair a few miles along the road from Peebles.

 

However, for the route that the hero follows over the Mynchmoor in the story, I was thinking more of the Gypsy Glen drove road that climbs out of the southern edge of Peebles and crosses the summits of Kailzie Hill, Kirkhope Law and Birkscairn Hill.  I’ve never walked along that drove road when the surroundings have been anything less than lovely, but to make the story atmospheric and gothic, I made the route misty, cold and damp – which the drove road no doubt is if you venture up there in wintertime.

 

 

Also, I think Crows of the Mynchmoor could constitute an important first in the history of fantasy fiction, because playing a prominent role in its plot are… turnips.  Yes, George R.R. Martin, you might have made a fortune and become a household name thanks to the Game of Thrones books, but did you ever think about featuring turnips in them?  No?  Well, you must be kicking yourself now.

 

For the time being, the main page of issue 120 of Swords & Sorcery Magazine is accessible here, while Crows of the Mynchmoor itself can be read here.

Favourite Scots words, G-H

 

From wikipedia.org / Scottish National Portrait Gallery

 

Today is January 25th and this evening is Burns Night, when Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns will be commemorated at suppers across the globe with the reciting of his Scots-language verse, the playing of traditional Scottish music and the quaffing of much, much whisky.

 

Recently, a newspaper reported that during his lifetime Burns had been urged not to write in the Scots language because it would alienate readers who weren’t Scottish.  “Dr. John Moore, a Scottish physician and travel author, who wrote regularly to Burns, warned him that London readers would not connect to his works.  Burns, obviously, ignored his advice, and the rest is history.”  It’s ironic that a postscript to this article, published in the London-based Guardian, stated apologetically: “This article was amended on 17 January 2022.  Scots, in which Burns wrote much of his best-known poetry, is widely regarded as a language, not a ‘dialect’ as a previous version described it.”  No doubt Dr. John Moore would have approved of the original article; Burns of the amended one.

 

Anyway, as is my custom on January 25th, here is a list of some of my favourite words and phrases from the Scots language, originating before Burns or originating after him.  This time I’m covering items beginning with letters ‘G’ and ‘H’.

 

Gaberlunzie (n) – a professional beggar or ‘wandering never-do-well’.  It’s said that King James V of Scotland liked to disguise himself as a gaberlunzie occasionally and go wandering about his kingdom (no doubt finding out along the way what his subjects really thought of him) and he penned the famous folk ballad The Gaberlunzie Man about his experiences.  A gangrel is a more general Scots word meaning ‘vagrant’.

 

Gadge, gadgie (n) – a man.  This supposedly comes from Romany, is used in North Eastern Scotland and I heard it a lot when I lived in Aberdeen in the 1980s.

 

Gallus (adj) – a word much-used by certain Glaswegians when describing themselves, meaning bold, cheeky, reckless, show-offy and irrepressible.  However, the online Collins Dictionary tells me that gallus is derived from the word ‘gallows’ and it originally meant ‘fit for the gallows’.  Which is appropriate in a way.  On several occasions I’ve tried to have a quiet, reflective pint in a Glaswegian pub, only to have my meditation disrupted and my space invaded by a would-be gallus local wanting to bowl me over with his amazing patter.  With the result that I’d have liked to see him strung up on the gallows.

 

© Channel 4 Films / PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

 

Gash (adj/adv) – terrible (though I’ve seen it defined as meaning ‘witty’ or ‘well-dressed’ as well).  This word memorably appeared in the movie version of Trainspotting (1996) when Tommy (Kevin McKidd) recalls playing a game of pool with Begbie (Robert Carlyle).  The latter plays so badly that he ends up taking his frustration out on a hapless spectator, whom he beats to a pulp: “…Begbie is playin’ absolutely f*ckin’ gash…  He picks on this speccy wee gadge at the bar, accusin’ him ay puttin’ him off by lookin’ at him…”

 

Glaikit, also gawkit (adj) – silly, foolish, thoughtless.  Like a lot of Scots vocabulary, there’s a wonderful, near-onomatopoeic quality to this word.  You hear those two syllables, ‘glai-kit’, and immediately you begin to visualise a blank face, a dull pair of eyes, an expression that indicates zero intelligence.  Something like…

 

From wikipedia.org / © Gage Skidmore

 

Gloaming (n) – The period after sunset but before it gets completely dark.  It inspired the famous 1911 song Roamin’ in the Gloamin’, written and performed by Sir Harry Lauder.  The song’s chorus goes: “Roamin’ in the gloamin’ on the bonnie banks o’ Clyde / Roamin’ in the gloamin’ wi ma lassie by ma side!”  There’s also a song by Radiohead called The Gloaming, found on their 2003 album Hail to the Thief, which you’ll be surprised to hear is a wee bit less jaunty than the Harry Lauder song.

 

Graip (n) – a big pronged fork used for shifting hay, silage and cut grass.  Like a lot of Scots words, this one made it across the Irish Sea and I remember it being used on my family’s farm when I was a kid in Northern Ireland.

 

Greet (v) – to cry.  A greetin’ face is a crybaby.

 

Grog (v) – to spit.

 

Guddle (n) – a confused mess (similar to a ‘muddle’).  Guddle also exists in Scots as a verb and means to catch a fish with your bare hands, using the mysterious technique of tickling the fish’s belly.

 

Guisin’ (v/n) – what kids do on Halloween night, going around door-to-door in fancy dress, singing songs or telling jokes in the hope of getting sweets and snacks as a reward.  Yes, guisin’ is trick-or-treating, long before the American term was ever heard of in Scotland.

 

Haar (n) – a cold, damp mist that you get creeping in from the North Sea.  I’ve heard it claimed that there are over 100 Scots words for rain, although I haven’t found them listed online.  This site, however, gives 27 Scots words for weather, most of it precipitation, coldness and general miserableness.

 

From unsplash.com / © Carl Jorgensen

 

Hackit (adj) – ugly.  Thus, if the third and final instalment of Sergio Leone’s epic Dollars trilogy of 1960s spaghetti westerns was ever remade and relocated in Scotland, it presumably wouldn’t be entitled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but The Braw, the Shite an’ the Hackit.

 

Handless (adj) – used to describe a man who’s hopeless at performing practical, manual tasks in a household, one who can’t carry out repairs and has zero DIY.

 

Harled (adj) – a harled building has had its external stonework covered in a mixture of lime and gravel, giving it a roughcast coating that protects it against the worst of the Scottish elements.  Famous harled buildings include Stirling Castle and Aberdeenshire’s Crathes Castle.

 

Haud yer wheesht! (imperative phrase) – be quiet!  Incidentally, Haud yer Wheesht was also the name of a rather good folk band that operated in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, headed by Jimmy the Bagpiper who used to busk around St Giles’ Cathedral.  If you were familiar with Edinburgh at the time, he was the one who dressed like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.

 

Havenae a Scooby (idiom) – (I) haven’t a clue.  Rhyming slang, with ‘clue’ replaced by ‘Scooby’, i.e., ‘Scooby Doo’, the American TV cartoon dog accompanied a group of ‘pesky kids’, who every episode would investigate a supposedly haunted house, only to stumble across and thwart a criminal scheme run by some villain who ‘would have got away with it’ otherwise.

 

Haver (v) – to talk nonsense.  This is word is essential for understanding the last lines of the first verse of the Proclaimers song 500 Miles, which goes: “And if I haver, yeah, I know I’m gonnae be, I’m gonnae be the man who’s havering to you.”

 

Heehaw (n) – a politer form of ‘f*ckall’, as in “Ye ken heehaw aboot it!”

 

Heelster-gowdie (adj/adv) – a Scots way of saying ‘head over heels’.

 

Heidbanger, heider, heid-the-baw (n) – a nutter, a crazy person, an idiot.  Heid-the-baw is a more personal, face-to-face term: “Hey, heid-the-baw, I’m talkin’ tae you!”

 

Heid bummer (n) – the person in charge.

 

Hirple (v) – to hobble or limp.

 

Hoachin’ (adj) – busy, crowded, infested.  One of the Scottish Tourist Board’s greatest accomplishments has been to suppress the fact that Scotland is totally hoachin’ with midges.

 

Hochmagandy (n) – a jocular or poetic word for sexual intercourse, for recreation, not procreation, between people who are not married to each other.  Unsurprisingly, Robert Burns was familiar with this saucy noun, as indicated by the final lines of his poem The Holy Fair: “There’s some are fou o’ love divine / There’s some are fou o’ brandy / An’ mony jobs that day begin / May end in hochmagandy…

 

Hoolet (n) – an owl.  This charming Scots word, like a number of others, is derived from the French language, where the word is ‘hulotte’.

 

Hoor (n) – derived from the word ‘whore’ and literally a prostitute, but generally a very nasty, abusive term for a woman.  A few years back, while I was working briefly in Abu Dhabi, I was bemused to see this sign for a beauty salon.  I bet it didn’t get many lady customers from Scotland.

 

 

On the other hand, the phrase ya hoor is merely an exclamation of surprise.  I remember sitting in a cinema in Edinburgh in 1999 and seeing The Matrix for the first time.  At the moment when Carrie Ann Moss sprang upwards, froze in mid-air, and the camera rotated around her in an early and unexpected display of the cinematic technique known as ‘flo-mo’, there was a stunned silence in the auditorium.  Apart from one guy in the row behind me, who promptly exclaimed: “Ya hoor!”

 

Howk (v) – to dig, rake or poke around in.  Once upon a time, the activity of manually picking potatoes out of the ground was called tattiehowking.  A more abusive derivation is binhowker, meaning someone who has to find sustenance by rummaging in other people’s bins.

 

Huckle (v) – to manhandle and move by force.  My relationship with Scotland’s bouncer community has not always been a harmonious one, and I have to admit that once or twice I’ve been huckled out of a bar or club by them.

 

Hughie (v) – to vomit.  Another Scots verb for this action is to ralph.  Hence, I’ve heard people say regretfully the morning after a boozy night: “I spent the end ay the evenin’ in the company ay Ralph an’ Hughie.”

Ian McEwan’s Saturday: Tony Blair and tone-deaf

 

© Vintage

 

“The butcher boy gets a bauble,” was my reaction to the news that former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was to be made ‘a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter’, whatever that means, in the Queen’s New Year Honours List.  I call Blair ‘the butcher boy’ because of his role in the invasion of Iraq, which happened during his watch in 2003.  The invasion was launched to depose Saddam Hussein who, it was claimed, possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  However, these WMDs turned out to not actually exist and it became obvious that Blair and his invasion partner George W. Bush had spun a web of lies beforehand to make people believe that they did.

 

And it wasn’t just the WMDs that didn’t exist.  Since the invasion took place, up until the beginning of 2021, due to ‘coalition and insurgent military action’ and subsequent ‘sectarian violence and criminal violence’, between 185,000 and 209,000 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have stopped existing too – their deaths the direct and indirect results of Blair and Bush’s actions.

 

Actually, I’d been thinking about Tony Blair and Iraq before word came through of Blair’s ennoblement, because late last year I read Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday.  This describes 24 hours in the life of a middle-aged, London-based neurosurgeon called Henry Perowne, starting on the morning of Saturday, February 15th, 2003.  In real life, that date saw the biggest political demonstration in British history.  A million people took to the streets of London in an anti-war protest organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain.  Blair, of course, had a messianic belief in his own rightness and ignored the many arguments against war voiced by the protestors, and just over a month later Britain joined the USA and its allies in starting hostilities against Iraq.  The demonstration forms a backdrop to the events in McEwan’s novel and the forthcoming invasion is prominent in the thoughts and conversations of its characters.

 

I was a big fan of McEwan during my youth.  This was while he was in a weird, morbid, modern-gothic phase and wrote the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories collected in First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978).  Thereafter, McEwan became more wholesome and respectable and found success and acclaim as a writer of mainstream literature.  Saturday is only the third novel I’ve read by McEwan since he stopped being ghoulish. The others were The Child in Time (1987), which I enjoyed with some reservations, and Atonement (2001), which I thought was excellent, although a later allegation of plagiarism tarnished it a bit for me.  However, while I’ve generally reacted positively to McEwan’s work, I found Saturday problematic.  It seemed naïve in the statements it was making.  Also, its depiction of its central characters I found downright annoying.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Thesupermat

 

The day described in Saturday begins before dawn.  Perowne gets out of bed and notices an object that he first assumes is ‘a meteor burning out in the London sky’. He realises, though, that it’s a plane with an engine on fire, which makes him wonder if he’s witnessing an act of terrorism – terrorism being on everyone’s minds since events in New York a year-and-a-half earlier.  But it turns out that he’s seen an accidental fire on board a cargo plane, which manages to make an emergency landing at Heathrow.  Reassured, he gets on what’s been planned for the day ahead.

 

His first engagement is at a sports centre where he has a game of squash with his anaesthetist, an American called Jay Strauss.  Then he visits his mother, stricken with dementia in a care home, and does some shopping for a family gathering at his house that evening.  In addition to Perowne and his wife Rosalind, the get-together is attended by their daughter Daisy, son Theo and Rosalind’s father, the quaintly named John Grammaticus.  Later that night, he gets an urgent request from Strauss to perform some emergency surgery: “We got an extradural, male, mid-twenties, fell down the stairs… a depressed fracture right over the sinus…  I want someone senior in here and you’re the nearest.  Plus you’re the best.”

 

However, two more incidents make the day darker.  On his way to play squash, a distracted policeman allows Perowne to drive along Tottenham Court Road, officially closed off for the anti-war demonstration – with the result that he prangs another car coming out of a side-street, whose driver didn’t expect him to be there.  When he gets out to speak to the other car’s three occupants, Perowne realises the men are criminals, ready to beat him up if he doesn’t immediately pay for the damage their car has suffered.  But he also notices that the leader of the trio, a man called Baxter, is showing symptoms of a serious neurological disorder.  Using his knowledge of the illness, Perowne is able to distract and disorientate Baxter long enough to get back into his car and escape.

 

But that isn’t the end of it.  That evening, just after Perowne has welcomed his family into his house, a vengeful Baxter and one of his henchmen burst in and hold them at knifepoint.  There ensues violence, threatened violence and sexual humiliation, before Perowne and his son Theo manage to repel the invaders.  Baxter is thrown down some stairs, knocked unconscious and taken away in an ambulance.  When the phone call comes from Strauss, Perowne realises the injured man he’s being asked to operate on is Baxter, who traumatised his family a short time ago. As he prepares to leave, Rosalind demands, “You’re not thinking about doing something, about some sort of revenge are you?”

 

“Of course not,” Perowne replies, and proves to be as good as his word.

 

As McEwan was in 2003, Perowne is in favour of the Iraq invasion.  He’s not as gung-ho as Strauss, who grumbles about the protestors, “They dislike your Prime Minister, but boy do they f*cking loathe my President,” or indeed as Baxter, who snarls at them in an aside, “Horrible rabble.  Sponging off the country they hate.”  But to his daughter Daisy, who takes part in the day’s demonstration, he says: “No rational person is for war.  But in five years’ time we might not regret it.  I’d love to see the end of Saddam.  You’re right.  It could be a disaster.  But it could be the end of a disaster and the beginning of something better.”  Perowne has been influenced by the testimony of an Iraqi patient of his, an academic called Miri Taleb.  Saddam’s secret police once arrested Taleb and subjected him to ten months of physical and mental torment: “Even on the day of his release he didn’t discover what the charges were against him.”

 

Elsewhere, McEwan’s descriptions of the anti-war protestors seem a bit patronising: “The general cheerfulness Perowne finds baffling.  There are whole families, ones in various sizes of bright red coats, clearly under instructions to hold hands; and students, and a coachful of greying ladies in quilted anoraks and stout shoes.  The Women’s Institute, perhaps…  The scene has an air of innocence and English dottiness.”  Mind you, years later in an interview with Channel 4 News, McEwan admitted that he’d changed his opinion about the war and felt that the marchers in 2003 were ‘vindicated’.

 

From aa.com.tr

 

While I read Saturday, I tried to work out the significance of the villainous Baxter.  Was he a metaphor for Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime?  Or was Baxter’s intrusion into the Perownes’ home a metaphor for terrorism, erupting without warning in everyday life, destroying all notions of normality and security for its victims?  And what’s to be made of Perowne’s eventual decision to do the decent thing, operate on Baxter and save his life?  I got the impression Perowne represented McEwan’s ideal of an enlightened, democratic, liberal West, intervening in Iraq but doing so with everyone’s best interests at heart, including the Iraqis.  Unfortunately, the ‘ignorance, arrogance, neglect, stubbornness, panic, haste and denial’ displayed by Iraq’s Western occupiers following the invasion, which rapidly turned the country into a failed state, showed this to be a pipe dream.  The USA, Britain and their allies were a hell of a lot less benevolent, magnanimous and expert at what they were doing in Iraq than Henry Perowne was in the operating theatre.

 

If the political statement McEwan seems to make in Saturday is wishful thinking, certainly in hindsight, I was more troubled by the lack of self-awareness displayed by the main characters.  Fair enough, as a London neurosurgeon, Perowne is going to be a wealthy man.  His car, McEwan notes, is a “silver Mercedes S500 with cream upholstery – and he’s no longer embarrassed by it.  He doesn’t even love it – it’s simply a sensuous part of what he regards as his overgenerous share of the world’s goods.”

 

But his son Theo is an up-and-coming blues guitarist.  His mother arranged for him to get lessons from Jack Bruce, no less.  “Through Bruce, Theo met some of the legendary figures.  He was allowed to sit in on a Clapton masterclass.  Long John Baldry came over from Canada for a reunion…  By some accident Theo jammed for several minutes with Ronnie Wood and met his older brother Art…”  So, while most kids his age are worrying about entry-level jobs, rents and college fees, Theo, through his family wealth and connections, gets stupendous opportunities to develop his skills playing music – ironically, a type of music that was invented by impoverished black people living in America’s rural south.

 

Similarly, Perowne’s daughter Daisy is a graduate of Oxford University and a poetess who’s just had a collection of poems published.  It no doubt helps that her grandfather, John Grammaticus, is a famous English poet who lives in a chateau in France.  Though both lauded and loaded, the old man is bitter about how the world has treated him: “John minded when Spender and not he was knighted, when Raine not Grammaticus got the editorship at Faber, when he lost the Oxford Professorship of Poetry to Fenton, when Hughes and later Motion were preferred as Poets Laureate, and above all when it was Heaney who got the Nobel.”

 

I may have missed it in Saturday, but I don’t remember the Perownes reflecting on their good fortune, on having so much in a world where many people have so little.  It’s especially galling that Theo and Daisy, whom we’re supposed to like as characters, don’t acknowledge their luck in having fulfilling, creative lives, doing the things they enjoy doing, that most people their age can’t have because they lack the wealth, security, support, time and connections.  Perhaps once, back when many of Theo’s British-blues heroes were youngsters from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, Britain offered some social mobility and the arts weren’t necessarily the preserve of the elite.  But that’s hardly the case in 21st century Britain, when money, poshness and who-you-know seems to be prerequisites for careers in music (Florence Welch, Mumford and Sons, James Blunt), acting (Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, Pattinson, various Foxes) and literature (while the 2003 and 2013 Granta lists of ‘Best Young British Novelists’ showed some ethnic diversity, about 60% of those novelists had still attended Oxford or Cambridge Universities).

 

I’d assumed McEwan would use Baxter, who’d obviously never had the opportunities gifted to Theo and Daisy, as an instrument to comment on this when he crashes into the Perownes’ comfortable world.   However, the ‘home invasion’ section of Saturday is relatively brief and the bitter commentary I expected didn’t appear.  Baxter gets strangely emotional after he forces Daisy to recite a poem to him, Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, but that’s all.

 

This muted acceptance of the advantages enjoyed by the Perowne family irritated me most about Saturday.  In this respect, it seems as tone-deaf as Tony Blair was about the war that the novel ruminates on.

 

From change.org

Making room in 2022 for Harry Harrison

 

© Penguin

 

As 2022 dawned, I noticed people on social media drawing attention to the fact that this new year is the year in which the famous 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green is set.  Starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green depicts 2022 as a hellish time when overpopulation has exhausted the world’s resources and left many people dependent on a cheap, mass-produced foodstuff called Soylent Green, which is supposed to be made from plankton.  But, as Heston’s policeman hero finds out at the film’s finale, Soylent Green is actually made from – surprise! – people.  Yes, with human civilisation on its knees, capitalism has incorporated cannibalism.

 

With Soylent Green topical again, I thought I’d write a few words about the book on which the movie is based, Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966).  It’s less showy but more credible than the movie, a classic of dystopian cinema though it is.  And dare I say it, I think the book is better.

 

The edition of Make Room! Make Room! I read was one published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2009.  This feels ironic considering that for most of his career Harry Harrison (who died in 2012) was regarded as a solid, meat-and-two-veg-type science fiction writer.  Not the sort of person you’d expect to find favour among mainstream literary critics or have work published by a company synonymous with highbrow literature like Penguin.

 

Harrison’s first creative job was actually as an artist, not as a writer.  Following stints in the Air Corps and military police during World War II, which left him disdainful of military culture – in the introduction to one book he wrote that the armed forces’ “mixture of sadism, unquestioned authority, brutality, racism, intolerance, vulgarity, to name but a few, was the antithesis of everything that I believed in” – he spent much of the late 1940s and 1950s drawing and editing comic-books.  It wasn’t until a bout of illness left him, temporarily, unable to draw that he tried his hand at writing.  In the decades that followed, he established himself as one of science fiction’s most popular authors, thanks largely to swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek space operas like the Stainless Steel Rat books.  I read some of these in my youth and have always thought their comedic and satirical elements helped pave the way for Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy franchise.

 

© Sphere

 

However, space operas and humour were two things unlikely to curry favour with literary critics, which meant that Harrison, though popular, was underrated as a writer.  This was a pity.  For one thing, for a long time, science fiction was a genre whose practitioners included many right-wing dingbats – see Robert Heinlein (whose gung-ho 1959 novel Starship Troopers Harrison took the piss out of with 1965’s Bill the Galactic Hero), Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle and Orson Scott Card.  Actually, there’s plenty of them still on the go, such as arsehole extraordinaire Theodore Beale.  Among that lot, Harrison’s authorial voice seemed refreshingly liberal and anti-militaristic and it would’ve been good to see him get more attention.

 

Anyway, I trust Harrison enjoyed a wry chuckle about Penguin’s decision to label Make Room! Make Room! a ‘modern classic’ three years before his death.

 

Like the film, Make Room! Make Room! is set in New York, but not in 2022.  The book’s set in 1999, 33 years into the future from when Harrison wrote it.  It describes a New York that’s bursting at its concrete seams with 35 million inhabitants.  Gasoline is all but gone and supplies of food and water are running dangerously low.  While Harrison is warning us of the danger of letting the human population grow unchecked, with the resultant depletion of resources, it’s interesting that the story in the opening chapters unfolds against the backdrop of a sweltering heatwave: “After the damp hallway the heat of Twenty-fifth Street hit him in a musty wave, a stifling miasma compounded of decay, dirt and unwashed humanity…  Days of heat had softened the tar so that it gave underfoot, then clutched at the soles of his shoes.”  This gives the modern-day reader an uncomfortable feeling that what’s really blighting the city is the relentlessly-climbing temperatures of manmade climate change.

 

The novel’s hero is a tough but dutiful cop called Andy Rusch who’s investigating the murder of a gangster called Michael O’Brien.  Cruelly, O’Brien has been living it up in a swanky gated-community apartment with near-unobtainable luxuries such as liquor and red meat, while Rusch is stuck in a partitioned room cohabited by an old man called Sol.  (Sol spends much of his time pedalling on a wheel-less bicycle that’s wired to an electrical generator, which keeps his ancient TV and fridge running).  Although the city authorities believe that O’Brien was rubbed out by a rival syndicate keen to muscle their way into the city, the murderer is really a hapless young petty criminal called Billy Chung who accidentally killed O’Brien during a bungled robbery.

 

The book has a double narrative, focusing both on Rusch pursuing the killer and on Chung fleeing and trying to evade capture.  But the plot has a darker momentum too – downwards.  We see Rusch’s life gradually disintegrate as the polluted, over-populated, under-resourced city around him goes from bad to worse and, despite his best efforts, he fails to hold onto the two people who matter most to him: the feisty but vulnerable Sol and the gorgeous and good-hearted Shirl, moll of the late Michael O’Brien, whom Rusch falls in love with during the course of his investigations.

 

It’s a smart move by Harrison to wrap the apocalyptic content of Make Room! Make Room! in the trimmings of a crime / detective story.  Rather than thrust the horrors of this hellhole New York into our faces, he lets us concentrate, mainly, on the story of Rusch tracking down Chung; while slipping in disturbing details about what’s going on in the background.  There are casual mentions of ‘tugtrucks’ – which we realise are wagons pulled along by teams of sweating, straining human beings, there being no more fuel left for conventional, engine-powered trucks.  Shirl pays a visit to a heavily fortified, heavily guarded hideout that’s not selling drugs, as we initially expect, but selling beefsteaks.  And there are references to Rusch stepping over sleeping or huddling bodies in hallways and stairwells, indicating that hell isn’t quite Jean-Paul Satre’s definition of it as ‘other people’.  No, hell is lots of other people.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Returning to Soylent Green, the movie adaptation of Make Room! Make Room!, I should say I remember reading about the film in a book called Future Tense: the Cinema of Science Fiction (1979) written by the movie critic John Brosnan.  As part of his coverage of the film, Brosnan interviewed Harrison and the author had mixed feelings about how his story had been transferred from the page to the screen.

 

He certainly admired the job that the director Richard Fleischer (another underrated talent) had made of Soylent Green, but he begrudged some of the changes wrought by the filmmakers.  For instance, Sol – who in Soylent Green is played by Edward G. Robinson – dies in the book from injuries he sustains after he takes part in a demonstration, in support of family planning, that turns into a riot.  In the movie, Sol decides he’s had enough of the increasingly-shitty world and goes to a ‘euthanasia clinic’ to end it all.  Harrison wasn’t impressed by this because, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are something of a cliché in science fiction.  (At the time that I read Make Room! Make Room!, I also read Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, first published in 1895, and it had something in it called a ‘government lethal chamber’.)  However, he conceded that the depiction of Sol’s death in the film was powerful.  While the old man expires, calming images of fields, forests, flowers, wildlife, unpolluted oceans and other things that he probably hasn’t seen since his youth are projected around him.

 

And Harrison didn’t like Soylent Green’s ending, which ironically has become its best-remembered moment – wherein Charlton Heston makes the discovery that everyone’s favourite snack in 2022 is secretly made out of recycled human corpses and, wounded, he’s carried away yelling, “Soylent Green is people!”  Harrison had researched Make Room! Make Room! meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he knew that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up very quickly and they require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a form of livestock to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this study has shown, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

By way of contrast, Make Room! Make Room! ends with Rusch on duty in Times Square on the eve of the Millennium – and while the beleaguered city enters the 21st century, he’s given a bitter reminder that no matter how bad things get for the great mass of humanity, there’ll always be a wealthy minority who carry on living in luxury.

 

I assume Harrison set Make Room! Make Room! in 1999 because he couldn’t resist having its final scene occur at the dawn of the new Millennium, a moment loaded with significance.  However, that doesn’t make the book any less terrifying in 2022.  After all, the human population is quite likely to hit the eight-billion mark before the end of this year.  As well as putting intolerable strains on the world’s supplies of soil, water, vegetation and animal life, this burgeoning number of people means greater production of greenhouse gases and worsening manmade climate change.  And it means more human encroachment on the natural world, with the danger that lethal viruses may mutate and switch from living in animal hosts to living in human ones.  The past two years have seen us struggling to deal with just one instance of that happening.

 

Today more than ever, Make Room! Make Room! is an example of ‘science fiction’ threatening to become ‘science fact’ – in the worst possible way.

 

From philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com

Don’t Look Up is worth looking up

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

Before I start, a warning – many spoilers ahead!

 

Appropriately for a year that was fairly grim, the final movie I watched in 2021 was the recently released, apocalyptic sci-fi satire Don’t Look Up, which tells the story of how two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet hurtling on a course that in six months’ time will bring it smashing into the earth and wiping out all life here.  But their warnings about what’s coming are muffled by a trivia-obsessed media, chiefly represented by fatuous talk show hosts Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, which refuses to take them seriously.  They’re also thwarted by duplicitous politicians, most notably Meryl Streep as the American president, who are reluctant to take decisive action and blow the damned comet out of the sky because, it transpires, it’s loaded with priceless minerals.

 

Don’t Look Up is interesting in that while it enjoys a healthy 7.3 / 10 approval rating from users of the online film database IMDb, and an even healthier ’82% liked this film’ rating among Google users, the reviews by film critics have been less enthusiastic – approval ratings of 54% and 50% on the critical aggregates Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic respectively.  Among those unimpressed critics were the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who called it ‘laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed’, and Rolling Stone’s David Fear, who described it as ‘a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire’.  Meanwhile, in the Independent, Louis Chilton went the whole hog and penned an article entitled WHAT GOES UP, MUST COME DOWN: WHY IT’S OKAY TO HATE ‘DON’T LOOK UP’.  In this, he opined, “the execution is too broad and condescending… And for a comedy, perhaps its greatest offence is that there are almost no laughs.”

 

So Don’t Look Up has received contrasting levels of appreciation from ordinary viewers and from the critics.  Interestingly, one faction that’s whole-heartedly praised the film has been environmental journalists and scientists.  Climate scientist Peter Kalmus wrote in the Guardian that as someone “doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s also the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.”  Meanwhile, in the Guardian too, environmental journalist George Monbiot declared, “The movie is, in my view, a powerful demolition of the grotesque failures of public life.  And the sector whose failures are most brutally exposed is the media…  it seemed all too real.  I felt as if I were watching my adult life flash past me.  As the scientists in the film, trying to draw attention to the approach of a planet-killing comet, bashed their heads against the Great Wall of Denial erected by the media and sought to reach politicians with 10-second attention spans, all the anger and frustration and desperation I’ve felt over the years boiled over.”

 

Well, I have to say I come down on the side of Joe Public (and the environmentalists) and not on the side of the critics who, as part of the mainstream media, were perhaps not best pleased by how the film portrayed that media.  I liked Don’t Look Up and, despite what Louis Chilton claimed in the Independent, enjoyed several hearty laughs during its running time.  There are a few problems, which I’ll talk about in a minute, but generally I’m happy to give the movie the thumbs up.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

Much of what works in the movie is due to its impeccable cast.  DiCaprio and Lawrence make a good double-act as the astronomers.  DiCaprio is a timid character, at times a bundle of nerves, cerebral but inarticulate when he comes under pressure.  Lawrence is the opposite, ready to forcibly speak her mind when she sees others obfuscating.  As events unfurl, it’s the bumbling DiCaprio who unwittingly becomes a media star, probably because he matches public perceptions of what scientists should be like – cuddly, eccentric Albert Einstein types.  Meanwhile, the abrasive Lawrence is banished from the limelight.  DiCaprio plays along with this and ingratiates himself with the media and political establishments, believing he can exert a positive influence over the people in power who are dealing with the comet.  He can’t, as it turns out, and while he compromises his principles his private life up-ends and he becomes estranged from his wife and children.

 

Perry and Blanchett are simultaneously amusing and chilling as the shallow talk-show hosts, though Blanchett is allowed a sliver of character development later when we learn she has three master’s degrees, meaning that her lack of acumen onscreen is merely an audience-pleasing act.  The sequence where DiCaprio and Lawrence go on their show, The Daily Rip, to break the bad news about the comet to the world, and find the hosts more interested in interviewing a pop-poppet (played by Ariane Grande, no less) about her split with her pop-poppet boyfriend, is a masterclass in cringe comedy worthy of Ricky Gervais or Armando Iannucci.

 

Meryl Streep, meanwhile, is majestically horrible as the president.  It would have been easy to portray her as a female Trump, but she’s smarter and smoother than the blustering, orange-skinned, cunning-without-being-smart property tycoon.  “I say we sit tight and assess,” is her initial reaction to DiCaprio and Lawrence’s warnings, which she justifies with the observation, “You cannot go around saying to people that there’s 100% chance that they’re going to die.  You know?  It’s just nuts!”  When she’s faced with a potentially explosive scandal and needs something to divert the media’s attention, however, she changes her tune.  She suddenly plays up the comet and amid much patriotic hoopla marshals the US’s nuclear firepower in an effort to annihilate it before it reaches the earth.  Her tune changes again when a major donor to her party persuades her to cancel the plan to destroy the comet, because it’s a goldmine of precious metals, and proposes a different way of handling it.

 

The donor is a Silicon Valley billionaire played by Mark Rylance, who believes his company has the capability to send a fleet of rocket-powered robots to the comet and seed it with explosives.  These will break it into small, non-cataclysmic fragments that can be retrieved and put to lucrative use when they fall to earth.  Stiff, eternally smiling, generally weird, Rylance comes across as a creepy mixture of Elon Musk, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.  Incidentally, the character’s fondness for having children onstage with him when he’s unveiling his company’s latest high-tech gadgets reminded me faintly of Jackson’s disastrous performance of The Earth Song at the 1996 Brit Awards in London, when he had a crowd of child actors in tow.  Rylance leaves you wondering if the character is a genius or just some arrested-development man-child who’s been extraordinarily lucky.  Due to his wealth, of course, the establishment believe he is a genius and happily go along with his comet-breaking scheme.  You can guess how it ends.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

The best performance, though, comes from Jonah Hill as the White House Chief of Staff, who also happens to be President Streep’s son.  If writer-director-producer Adam McKay doesn’t satirise Donald Trump directly with Streep, he certainly skewers the Trump White House with Hill’s character, a smug, obnoxious, entitled arse with all the characteristics of the promoted-beyond-their-abilities Trump kids (and Jared Kushner).  Hill makes a meal of the role. “You’re breathing weird.  It’s making me uncomfortable,” he whines at DiCaprio when the latter gets worked up describing the mile-high tsunamis that’ll crash across the planet when the comet hits.  And when DiCaprio tells him the chance of this happening is ’99.78 percent’, he reacts, “Oh, great!  So it’s not 100 percent.”  McKay also uses the character to take a swipe at Trumpism’s biggest coup, that of convincing masses of ordinary, often hard-up people to support a wealthy, right-wing elite by demonising another part of America, the part that’s liberal, urban and educated.  We hear Hill declare at a rally: “There’s three types of American people.  There are you, the working class.  Us, the cool rich.  And then them!”

 

On the minus side, I’d say Don’t Look Up is about half-an-hour too long.  Its unnecessary length means the satire gets a bit samey and the jokes get stretched a bit thin towards the end.  Also, late on, there are jarring tonal shifts.  We have solemn moments where DiCaprio tries to make peace with his loved ones and enjoy some final, life-affirming time with them, even while the gigantic tsunamis surge out from the comet’s strike-point.  This put me in mind of another movie about a collision of celestial bodies, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), even though for the most part it’s a million miles removed from Don’t Look Up in mood.  However, intercut with the DiCaprio scenes are ones where the satire continues, with Streep, Rylance and a super-rich select few escaping from the earth, in suspended animation, on board a specially-prepared spaceship, which’ll take them to another earth-type planet 23,000 years from now.  While I enjoyed both sub-plots, having them unwind side-by-side made me feel I was watching two different films.

 

Also, for a movie that’s about the disparagement of science, Don’t Look Up could have been more scientifically accurate in places.  The initial operation to completely destroy the comet involves sending an astronaut (Ron Perlman) up into space on a suicide mission.  He’s in a recommissioned space shuttle and shepherding a flock of rockets carrying nuclear bombs, all on a collision course with the comet.  But the real space shuttle could never get beyond a low-earth orbit because it couldn’t carry enough propellant to go further.  How is Perlman going to reach the comet, which is still a few months away at this point?  Couldn’t they just launch the rockets, without the shuttle, and guide them from the ground?  The ‘sleeper’ spaceship that appears at the end and transports a lucky few to a planet in a faraway solar system sets up a good final gag, but it troubled me too.  If the elite, which includes Rylance’s character, have the technology at their disposal to create a spaceship like that – officially, manned interstellar space travel and suspended animation are beyond human know-how at the moment – couldn’t Rylance have put that fabulous technology to more immediate use and made a better job of his comet-breaking operation?

 

Although people have interpreted Don’t Look Up’s comet as a metaphor for climate change and society’s hopeless attempts, or non-attempts, to address it, I think the film is making broader comments about the scientific community, the media, politicians and their responses to crises generally.  It’s not as if the politicians spend the whole film denying the existence of the comet, as some real-life ones still deny that climate change is happening.  Fairly early on, it’s established that, yes, the comet is heading our way (although we see instances of ‘comet-deniers’ among the general public later on).  It’s more about how self-interest and opportunism get in the way of necessary and meaningful action.

 

When Streep gives Rylance’s daft plan to harvest the comet the go-ahead, I found myself thinking of a real-life, down-to-earth and non-American parallel.  During the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government frequently handed out lucrative contracts for making personal protective equipment (PPE), establishing tracing programmes, setting up testing centres and so on to private companies that lacked medical experience, but were sympathetic to or connected with the Conservative party.  Often, the results were disastrous.  But hey, if you have access to power and can make a fast buck during a catastrophe, why not?

 

So actually, you don’t have to look up.  Just look around you instead.  It’s happening everywhere, this moment.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

My 2021 writing round-up

 

© Midnight Street Press

 

On this blog one year ago, I remember writing a post that bid an unfond adieu to the outgoing hellhole plague-year of 2020.  However, the post also welcomed 2021 with some expressions of mild optimism.  After all, vaccines were being developed against Covid-19, the main reason for 2020’s hideousness.  And that man-slug of evil, Donald Trump, had just been defeated in the US presidential election.

 

Well, I’m not making that mistake again.  I’m not expressing even faint optimism about 2022, seeing as 2021 was nearly as dire as its predecessor.

 

While the vaccines arrived – and having been double-jabbed and boosted courtesy of Sri Lanka’s healthcare system, I’m feeling a lot safer personally – it’s depressing that much of the world’s population remains unvaccinated.  Economics and politics have denied many people access to vaccines in the Global South.  Gordon Brown isn’t someone I normally agree with, but he’s absolutely right when he argues that the estimated 23.4 billion dollars it’d cost to roll out vaccines to everyone would be a wise investment for the world’s rich countries.  (It’s also a fraction of what’s been spent on certain recent wars.)   Meanwhile, anti-vaxxers continue to boggle the mind with their stupidity.  It takes unfathomable levels of dumbness to believe that getting a vaccine means having Bill Gates seed your body with micro-transmitters.  As a result, for years to come, unvaccinated humans will provide a giant petri dish for new Covid variants to mutate and develop.

 

As for the USA, it looks increasingly likely that the Republican Party, with Trump quite possibly at its head again, will be back in control of the White House in 2024.  They won’t win the popular vote, but the voter suppression, voting-law changes and replacement of election officials they’re currently enacting by stealth in the crucial ‘swing’ states will get them over the line.  At which point, the world’s most powerful nation will become a totalitarian state.

 

Anyway, enough of the gloom.  For me, 2021 wasn’t a disappointment in one respect, at least.  During the year I got a fair number of stories published, under the pseudonyms Jim Mountfield (used for my horror fiction) and Rab Foster (used for my fantasy fiction).  There follows a round-up of those stories, with information about where you can find them.

 

© DBND Publishing

 

As Jim Mountfield:

  • In January 2021, my story Where the Little Boy Drowned was published in Horrified Magazine. A ghost story (with a smidgeon of J-Horror), it was about a flooded river, a forgotten childhood tragedy and – appropriately for January – a New Year resolution that goes wrong. It can be read here.
  • February saw The Stables – another ghost story, this time about three girls on holiday in the countryside who enter a seemingly deserted farmstead searching for a riding school – appear in Volume 16, Issue 13 of Schlock! Webzine. Kindle and paperback versions of the issue are available here.
  • Later in February, When the Land Gets Hold of You, another story set on a farm, was featured in an anthology from DBND Publishing called The Cryptid Chronicles. As its title suggests, the stories in this collection concerned cryptids, that pseudoscientific category of animals that some people claim to exist but nobody has ever conclusively proven to exist, such as Chupacabra, the Jersey Devil and Nessie.  The cryptids in my story were based on redcaps, the malevolent fairies that legends say inhabit the peel towers of Scotland’s Borders region.  The Cryptid Chronicles can be bought here.
  • Shotgun Honey, a webzine devoted to the ‘crime, hardboiled and noir genres’, published my story Karaoke in March 2021. The story is about – surprise! – karaoke and it can be read here.
  • In July, I was pleased to have my story Ballyshannon Junction included in the collection Railroad Tales, from Midnight Street Press. The stories in Railroad Tales involved both ‘railroads, trains, stations, junctions and crossings’ and the ‘horrific, supernatural or extraordinary’.  Ballyshannon Junction met this brief by being set in an abandoned railway station in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and featuring a main character who’s plagued by possibly supernatural visions.  It also allowed me to use as inspiration the real-life Bundoran Junction station-house and grounds in County Tyrone, where my grandparents lived when I was a kid.  Railroad Tales can be purchased from Amazon UK here and amazon.com here.
  • A story inspired by a very different period in my life – when I worked in Libya – appeared in Volume 16, Issue 21 of Schlock! Webzine in October. The story was called The Encroaching Sand and the issue is available in kindle and paperback forms here.
  • Also in October, my story Bottled Up was included in the anthology Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 2): Folk Horror, published by Horrified Magazine. Folk horror is defined by Wikipedia as “a subgenre of horror… which uses elements of folklore to invoke fear in its audience.  Typical elements include a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes.”  Accordingly, Bottled Up was set in that rural and folkloric part of England, East Anglia, and featured the remnants of a cult that worship a pagan sea deity.  The anthology can be purchased here.
  • Finally, my story Problem Family – about, unsurprisingly, a problem family, but also with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft – appeared in Horla in December. Currently, it can be read here.

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

As Rab Foster:

  • In May, Perspectives of the Scorvyrn was published in Volume 16, Issue 16 of Schlock! Webzine. This tale attempted to subvert the more macho, musclebound, boneheaded conventions of that sweaty sub-genre of fantasy fiction, the sword-and-sorcery story.  For one thing, it was told from multiple viewpoints and, for another, it was written in the present tense.  Conan the Barbarian would not have approved.  Kindle and paperback versions of the issue can be obtained here.
  • In July, my 13,000-word story The Theatregoers appeared in the Long Fiction section of Aphelion. It can be accessed here.
  • October saw The Orchestra of Syrak, a story inspired by the phantasmagorical (if overly verbose) work of pulp writer Clark Ashton Smith, appear in the 116th issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine.  You can read it here.
  • And in November, Parallel Universe Publications unveiled a collection entitled Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy, Volume 3, which included my story The Foliage.  An extremely handsome volume (thanks to its illustrations by the talented artist Jim Pitts), kindle and paperback copies of it can be ordered from Amazon UK here and amazon.com here.

 

© Aphelion

 

And that’s that – proof that 2021 wasn’t so bad for me writing-wise, even though it sucked on most other levels.

 

I shan’t tempt fate by making any optimistic predictions about 2022, but let’s just hope it turns out to be better than its two predecessors.  And yes – I’m touching a large wooden surface as I write this – a Happy New Year, everyone!