Monday, 18 November 2013

Fear of the Future

It all started with a question. Might have been me, might have been a pal – for the purposes of this post let’s call him Argyle; but someone said something like, “How come you can ironically discuss the vampire tradition in vamp movies…” – we must have been talking about Buffy – “…but you can’t do the same in Zombie flicks?” I know. That's just the sort of conversations we have. But it's true, right? When a victim washes up on the banks of a fictional river with two holes puncturing their neck, one character is going to say ‘vampire’ pretty soon. In the fictional otherworld, people know about vampires. But when a group of shambling animated corpses rock up in the same neighbourhood, they get called “geeks” “walkers” “sickos” “infected”. No-one says, “Jeez. This is like something out of a Romero movie!”
In the fictional otherworld, nobody knows about zombies.

That strikes me as pretty weird. You write a ghost story, for example – your characters are going to know what they’re dealing with. They’re going to be sceptical, but they’re going to know what a ghost is, at least. If an army of dragons terrorise a city – a B Movie scenario, I know, but bear with me – its shocked inhabitants aren’t going to argue about how to describe these unfamiliar winged lizards

But Zombies? No.

How come? It took us a while to unravel this one. I’m not pretending our answer’s anything revolutionary. Probably been said a thousand times before by people quicker and cleverer than me and Argyle.

This is what we did. Imagine splitting the various non-human threats faced in fiction into two groups – ‘fear of the past’ and ‘fear of the future’. Vampires and ghosts have their roots in ancient Eastern European fairytale, and they are physical – or semi-physical at least – representations of the past. Dragons too, maybe, with their similarities to dinosaurs. If it comes from the past, there’s an assumption that your fictional characters will have absorbed all that knowledge and awareness about them. Zombies, though, are about fear of the future. They are what we will become if we don’t watch out; brain-dead morons hooked on consumerism. And since zombies stand for our future fears, human characters in zombie fiction must have never conceived of such horrors before. Part of the drama is them struggling to cope with something so unfamiliar. It’s inconceivable that one character might say to another; “Let’s find a prison! We’ll be safe there – like in Season Three of The Walking Dead!”

So – does our simple system of binary opposites work?

Not really. Where do Martians fit? Aliens? Or time travel? All ‘fear of the future’ threats, surely. And yet if a fictional somebody invents a gateway to the future, we’re going to have to call it a time machine, whether we want to or not, since in the fictional otherworld everyone’s read H.G.Wells and watched Dr Who.

Looks like Argyle and me are going to be arguing this one out for months and years to come.  

Monday, 4 November 2013

Homage to NaNoWriMo

As a kid I was an avid computer gamer and spent many a rainy afternoon playing a dodgy Spectrum version of The Hobbit; a game whose frame-rate was so slow you could pass getting on for twenty minutes watching a child-like line drawing of The Shire compose itself before you could begin to interact. 

But I was absorbed. I was borderline obsessed. And my obsession manifested itself in a burning desire to programme computer games.

So I set about mastering BASIC, a just-add-water-and-stir programming language beloved of myopic schoolboys like me, and I made my first game, a BMX-based adventure. The experience was soul-sapping. I never did it again.

There’s a huge disconnect between producer and consumer in gaming. They make ‘em, we play ‘em - and we get what we’re given. The same goes for movies and music. Why? Because these are art forms that need the mastery of an entirely new language; one that could take years to acquire.

Not so with fiction, though.

If we read a book we love, and we’re lucky enough to have received a decent education, we can pick up a pen and start writing… and a story emerges immediately. An hour or so in, you could be re-reading your opening scene and planning what happens next. Fan fiction is massive because people get a kick out of doing just that. NaNoWriMo fans the same flames.

So if you’re hammering away on a laptop somewhere this month – great. Enjoy yourself. I’ll be rooting for you.

Any art form which develops a way of closing the gap between producer and consumer has a very healthy future, I reckon.