The Stooge arrives!

At last, The Stooge will be getting a screening in the UK.

This has been showing at film festivals around the world for the last year or so, bravely masking up and mixing freely. It has gained a huge amount of attention in those socially distanced circles, but I can say it has been picking up awards and commendations everywhere it goes. Looking at the array of award bouquets, below, I am amazed, impressed and very pleased by the persistence of the producers. The festival circuit can be a hard road to travel, but they have done well in these socially constricted times.

The film runs for a mere twenty minutes, but it packs a lot into that brief time. It is an essay on stage magic and was for me when I wrote the original short story a kind of ironic commentary on and footnote to The Prestige. The story can be found in my recent collection Episodes, but that really does not give even a hint of the way it has been widened and enriched by director Rogelio Fojo. He has come up with real mystery, good surprises, excellent music and several moments of beauty. In the opening credits there is a classic sleight of hand, filmed in close-up from below: you see every move the illusionist makes, yet will still be baffled by it. Full credit goes to Fojo and his team.

I am arranging for a copy to be made available for showing at Novacon. This takes place between 12th and 14th November this year, at the Palace Hotel, in Buxton. I shall be there. Here is the website for the convention.

Still Expecting

For those who have long memories, and in a metaphorical sense grey beards, it might be recalled that in an entry on this blog dated 29th October 2020 I reported that I had just finished and sent in a new novel. It is called Expect Me Tomorrow.

The novel is still called that, in spite of the temptation to change the title to Expect Me Next Decade. This week I finally received and signed a contract for its publication, almost exactly eight months later. What you might ask has gone on in the meantime? Good question. Not, I can assure you, anything close to indecent haste from those at the other end. At least it now has a certainty, and is likely to appear in September next year, another fifteen months away.

Advice to aspiring novelists: live long.

A Coot

‘Cooting’ is a slang word describing a transgressive sexual act. I had never come across it before, either the word or the act, but I discovered the meaning (as no doubt you will too, after you read this) in the online Urban Dictionary. I don’t want to repeat the definition here. It is beyond question thoroughly disgusting.

You might well wonder why I was even looking it up. I came across the word in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun.

The book includes a description of a large and noisy machine that does road work. It is coloured a dirty pale yellow and through its three funnels it emits an acrid black smoke cloud, so dense and polluting that it obscures the light from the sun. The narrator (of whom more in a moment, but for now it’s enough to say the narrator is a solar-powered AI hominoid) sees this as a symbolically destructive machine and becomes determined to destroy it. The word Cootings is painted on its side.

Later in the book, the hominoid learns of a way to damage what is now called the Cootings Machine: if a certain fluid, referred to in Ishiguro’s mumbo-jumbo as a P-E-G Nine solution, is introduced into the workings the machinery would be made useless. As it happens, P-E-G Nine solution is present inside the hominoid, in ‘a small cavity … at the back of the head, where it meets the neck’. With the help of a human friend, the AI hominoid suffers a minor incision with a handy screwdriver, and the P-E-G Nine solution is introduced into the workings. The Cootings Machine is duly disabled.

This combination of a criminal act with body horror and body fluids made me wonder what on earth the author was getting at. It seemed dark and mysterious symbolism might be going on.

And why is it called Cootings? Cootings is apparently the name of the machine’s manufacturer. As the book is set in a slightly futuristic version of our own world, wouldn’t heavy industrial machinery of this sort be more realistically likely to have JCB or Kobelco or Massey-Ferguson painted on its side? Why make up a new name? Kazuo Ishiguro is self-consciously a serious writer at the top of the literary ladder: he is the author many novels, the winner of multiple book prizes, and is now a Nobel Laureate. The choice of this name must have been an informed, deliberate one, and this is why I went in search of the meaning of the word. When I learnt the definition given by the Urban Dictionary, I thought for a fleeting moment that I had stumbled on and opened up a whole new and stunningly original depth of dark symbolism. While the fleeting moment persisted I was shocked and daunted by the writer’s audacity.

Well, not really. The Cootings Machine turns out to be a minor sub-plot, the threat it presents is exaggerated by the narrator’s unworldly inexperience, and the attack on it with P-E-G Nine solution is carried out off-stage. And because it turns out there is more than one Cootings Machine in existence, to damage one of them is ultimately pointless. It is barely referred to again.

This is a risk of seeming to labour a point, but in fact it is one small but clear example of the many superficial and inconsequential images that litter this novel. Ishiguro clearly had no more idea than me or anyone else reading this what ‘cooting’ meant. Presumably he thought he was making it up. Presumably he didn’t think to spend ten seconds Googling the word (as I did earlier today) just in case it was slang for a disgusting and transgressive sexual act, just in case he wanted to think again and perhaps call it JCB Machine instead.

The book is narrated by Klara, an ‘Artificial Friend’ designed to help girl teenagers through their difficult years. Klara is referred to as a robot at one point, presumably because she has been fashioned in a human-like, i.e. hominoid, shape, with legs, a torso, a face and hair. She wears clothes, and goes to her own room at night. She is female in some undescribed fashion, so presumably male hominoids are made male in some other fashion. (If so, with what dark and mysterious reason?)

One groans at the familiarity, as one did in McEwan’s not dissimilar novel in 2019, Machines Like Me, but also at the impracticality and the sheer old-fashionedness of the idea. Walking and talking humanoids, from Robbie the Robot to Marvin the Paranoid Android, have used up the notion: they now amply fulfil the condition of intellectual decadence, as set out by Joanna Russ in her magisterial essay in 1971, ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’. Modern AI is genuinely a much more subtle thing, from the supermarket till that offers you money off next time you buy the chocolate biscuits you enjoy so much, to the intrusive data harvesting of social media engines, and to the hostile regimes who try to influence the results of elections. A walking, wondering, blank-eyed doll who calls a smartphone an ‘oblong’ and who thinks houses are painted in different colours so the residents will not enter the wrong one by mistake, is nowhere close to that league. Not AI at all, then. Better as AS?

Klara is our narrator for the full length of the 80,000-odd words, so we are forced to see the world through her restricted and estranged perception. Some critics call this the use of an unreliable narrator, but that is a much more sensitive and sophisticated literary device. Klara is not unreliable: she simply doesn’t get it. The matters she doesn’t get are left to us to try to understand, as it were, on her behalf. It is dull and sometimes maddening having to go through page after page, mentally interpreting for a clod. It distances the reader not only from the action and the world in which it takes place, but more importantly from the characters. They are third-person ciphers, respectively referred to as ‘Manager’ (of the obsolete type of department store where Klara sits in a sales window), or ‘the Mother’ (of Josie, the teenage girl who is being artificially befriended), or ‘Mr Paul’ (father of same). In dialogue, Klara habitually addresses them by these second-person labels.

All this is bad enough, but Ishiguro adapts his style to the purpose. His English is bland, careful, circumlocutory, slightly grandiloquent, always shrinking from commitment to his characters or his subject. One is often reminded of Stevens, the clod of a butler in The Remains of the Day, 1989, who behaved like a stooge servant in a TV costume drama, following the pedantic script and missing all the hints of a real world around him. Much of the dialogue in Klara and the Sun is repeated, the characters treating each other as people who haven’t listened or understood, or who defer to each other.

As for the lack of commitment, Ishiguro is depicting a future world in which the geneticists and eugenicists have perfected the art of super-selection, in which the bright kids are ‘lifted’, given good health and schooling and higher education, plus an easy passage into the chattering classes, while the dullards are fascistically consigned to pauperdom or death. Does Ishiguro give any hint of the moral horror of such a world? No – he shrinks from that, just as he and Stevens shrank from the appeasement of the Nazi sympathizers in the big country house of Remains of the Day.

A novelist should approach a fantastic or speculative element with a full-on open mind, aware of the consequences of technological inventions, of the implicit warnings contained in social extrapolation, of the good or bad example a postulated future might set, of the impact on the people who are involved. It is not enough to watch a few sci-fi films on Netflix, or pick up futuristic-seeming slang from comics. The fantastic is a powerful and important literary strand, largely ignored or patronized or misunderstood by the literary world at large, but the best examples of fantastic literature treat their material with seriousness, responsibility and imagination. A secondrate imagining of these things leads to secondrate literature. Klara doesn’t get it, but neither does Kazuo Ishiguro.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Published by Faber & Faber, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0-571-36487-9

The Magic — now in ebook

Nearly a decade and a half ago I wrote and published a book about the making of the film The Prestige. It’s called The Magic – the Story of a Film. Over the years many readers have purchased copies, which is still available in its first edition hardcover, as well as paperback. Courtesy of David Langford at Ansible Editions I now have an ebook version of The Magic available, and details of it may be read here.

The film was of course based on my own novel. It was directed by Christopher Nolan – at that time he was not the major Hollywood director he is now perceived to be. I took a special interest in the process of transition from book to film for reasons which should be obvious. I had little to do with the actual mechanics of the production, but being a witness to a lot of bemusing activity happening over there in far California was intriguing enough. The process of adaptation appealed to me as a craft matter: I knew better than anyone what a complex and cerebral book it was, and when I heard that a film was in preparation I started wondering how on Earth anyone could make anything coherent from it. When I was able to see the finished product the answer was a welcome and rather satisfying surprise.

Years later the film of The Prestige looks better and better. It is routinely under-rated by Nolan’s fans, who prefer the three films he made about The Batman, and the special effects extravaganzas that followed those. Not being that sort of fan I disagree. The Magic is therefore a book writer’s analysis, and celebration, of what is probably Nolan’s most interesting film to date.

What to Expect

It probably seems like a school essay: “What I did in lockdown”, but I have to say that living on a Scottish island and having a lot of writing to do is the best possible way of getting through this uninteresting, worrying and as yet unfinished period. Here, in reverse order, is the product of my last seven months in enforced seclusion:

I have written an introduction to a new book with what might seem an unpromising title: My Father’s Things. When you discover that the “My” is the photographer Wendy Aldiss, the “Father” is the author Brian Aldiss and the “Things” are all the possessions he had after a lifetime of writing, travel, family and collecting, then maybe it’ll seem a lot more interesting. I found it fascinating, both for the nosey satisfaction of seeing behind the scenes of a long, productive and successful life, and for the quality of the beautiful images. Wendy took more than 9,000 photos as she went sadly through his house, and the book is a selection of the best.

Brian Aldiss’s ties

Wendy is seeking crowdfunding for the project, and is already well on the way to achieving her target. Do check out the Kickstarter page, and become a supporter.

During the short recess in the lockdown, at the end of summer, we briefly breathed the heady air of freedom and went to see the new Christopher Nolan film, Tenet. This coincided with reading for review a new book by Tom Shone, The Nolan Variations. The book consists of transcriptions of many long interviews with the great man, film by film. I take a special interest in Nolan’s films, and the review is published today.

My book, The Magic, which is about the making of Nolan’s film version of The Prestige, is still available in hardcover and paperback. Details here.

Most of the last seven months, though, has been fully occupied by a new novel, which I completed and sent to the agent this week. The title is Expect Me Tomorrow, probably the most complex book I have written to date. I’m reluctant to say anything about it at the moment. I’m still too close to it for that, but it’s a weird feeling, sending something out into the world that has been a private obsession for all these months.

New Book (old normal)

First copies of The Evidence arrived this morning, looking good. I was very pleased to see this in print at last, after what turned out to be a fairly normal process, attended distractingly and worryingly by the social upheaval and feelings of uncertainty  known to everyone. Books endure, books are a constant.

According to Amazon, the book will not be published until October 15, but our local independent bookshop has already ordered, and says Gardners are supplying from stock. They will have copies tomorrow. Independent bookshops remain the best place to buy new books.

ISBN: 978 1 473 23137 5. Gollancz 2020, 312 pp, £20.00

Choose Which Side You’re On?

This is the Brexit Biscuit, a shortbread snack of two halves. It may be eaten whole, or one half at a time, or simply broken apart in a symbolic way: one side kept forever, the other discarded. It comes in a pack of twelve, wrapped in a free but tear-up-able copy of Article 50, and packed in a beautiful old-fashioned tin box, good for keeping things in. Obtainable here.

The Prestige and The Magic

The Sunday Telegraph, today, carries an interview with me by Sam Leith. (The Telegraph website has a paywall.) The matter under discussion: the films of Christopher Nolan, a topical subject as his new blockbuster Tenet is currently busy saving the film industry. Mr Leith had read my book on the subject, The Magic, so we tended to follow the arguments expressed there.

The Prestige (Gollancz)My novel The Prestige, was filmed by Christopher Nolan in 2006 and rated by many critics to be his best film (a view I share). The book is still in print and available in paperback from all bookstores.

A few years after the film appeared I wrote and published The Magic, in effect a response to the many friendly enquiries I received on an almost daily basis from readers and filmgoers: what did I really think of the film?, what went on behind the scenes?, how does the film compare with the novel?, and so on.

The MagicAlthough characterized in some quarters as me ‘slamming’ Mr Nolan (which no doubt will be said again after the interview has been read), the book is in fact an appreciative and nuanced study of how a serious and complex feature film is conceived and made by a young film maker at his peak.

I had absolutely nothing to do with the development and production of the film, but for obvious reasons every moment of the finished product was of interest and fascination to me. Naturally, I spelled out a few small reservations about the film (nothing’s perfect), and made a few disappointed comments about the way Mr Nolan’s talent appeared to be in the process of being squandered on lesser projects – an obsession with simplistic comic superheroes, for instance.

This is where the ‘slamming’ comes in, I suppose. But in reality I have always supported and endorsed the film, making personal introductions at festival screenings, for example. Christopher Nolan is clearly a talented and skilful film-maker, which is not in question, but he has not followed through with the uniquely imaginative approach shown in his early work. Many films start looking a bit dated quite soon after release, but Nolan’s film of The Prestige has a timeless quality, and is already showing encouraging signs of becoming a genuine classic of cinema.

The Magic is still in print and available directly from me, in both the first edition hardcover (£16.99) and a paperback (£10.99). More details about how to order can be found on this page.

The Evidence

Here is the cover art for my new novel, The Evidence. It will be published by Gollancz in October, and it can be pre-ordered from Amazon in hardcover or Kindle.

The EvidenceThere is no mention in it anywhere of lockdown, virus or pandemic. There are no jokes about eyesight tests, no plague ships polluting the oceans, no face masks. It describes a place where crime no longer exists, and in which three murders have to be investigated.

Plague Ships!

An interesting and potentially deadly subtext to the coronavirus crisis is the fate of several luxury cruise liners. Refused entry by many ports, a few of these monster vessels with their passengers and crews isolated inside their cabins and breathing recycled air, and suffering all the horrors of COVID19, had to roam the seas while searching for a safe landing. While the coronavirus epidemic was confined to the Far East a few of these ships were named and located. They were allowed to berth for quarantine, but many more are still at sea and in all parts of the world. They are now operating with increasing secrecy and many cannot be identified or tracked by software.

A very big shipThere are approximately sixty luxury cruise liners in current operation with a deadweight greater than 120,000 tonnes. Another forty-two such ships are currently on order, or under construction.

In environmental terms, each of these ships is an abomination: they produce exhaust fumes as prolifically as 700 large trucks. They leave a vast trail of human waste in their wake. Like all ships, they secretly clean out and dump the waste from their fuel tanks at sea. They severely damage both the infrastructure of the ports they call at, and the social dynamics of the towns they visit – Venice is the most famous example of this, but it is true of many other places, including the Scottish islands.

Today, our local paper Isle of Bute News reports that this part of Scotland, with its multiple sea lochs and inlets, has recently been attracting many such luxury yachts and cruise liners. Several of these ships have been refused entry to French and Italian ports. They have all switched off their identifying transmitters, and so become invisible to tracking software. A few berthed briefly in Greenock, then moved on. They cannot land crew or passengers without health clearance, so many of them are anchored at sea, or more often in convenient inlets between the hills.

Practical information about these Flying Dutchmen, modern plague ships secretly wandering the seas, can be found here.