The pastime of karuta is a fascinating one; a kind of competition of literary knowledge mixed with a test of reactions, based upon recall and identification of poems from the 100 verses of the hyakunin isshu. It received significant visibility in pop culture – especially overseas, thanks to the growing popularity of international availability of animé – with the airing in 2011 of the series Chihayafuru, which focused on a young girl learning the apparently unpopular hobby. While the series, with its emphasis on presenting how welcoming and inclusive apparently forbidding niche activities can be, and on the importance of persevering with things regardless of how unpopular or difficult they may seem, works as good entertainment in its own right, it drove me towards the hyakunin isshu themselves.
The future has shone upon us with its glorious brilliance! The time to seize our destiny and conquer all our fears is now! In ancient times man rubbed sticks together to create fire. Then they slaughtered the whale and battled one another for oil! After that came the atomic age! In every chapter of our history we’ve danced with danger but now it will be different! For the first time in the history of existence we will be delivered from fear! Finally, we will escape the prison of our illusions and the beautiful night will embrace us all!
Franken Von Vogler, from Giant Robo episode 2
The search for plenty and the obviation of resource shortages is a preoccupation of science fiction; the main obstacle in the way of unrestricted progress in reality is the scarcity of materials on which the modern age relies. As a result, the science-fiction utopia must either embrace a post-scarcity world in some fashion, or accept that the future must be a more frugal and responsible one. This former solution can come either through the colonisation of other planets and thus the assumption that new resource stockpiles may be found, such that the current rates of consumption may be maintained indefinitely, or through the assumption that science will provide for society with a method of obviating the current reliance on specific natural resources. Giant Robo, in its optimistic, pulp-esque opening narration filled with atomic-age optimism, describes the “third energy revolution”, predicated on the Shizuma Drive, a miraculous invention which overnight ended mankind’s need for natural resources thanks to the sudden cheap availability of free energy. Even the core conflict laid down in this opening – that between the almost naively titled Experts of Justice and the villainous Big Fire Society – is straightforward. Science has provided humanity with limitless power in the most literal sense, and it is inevitably abused by evildoers.
1979′s Mad Max is a film which, for all it has been visually inspirational to the post-apocalyptic genre with its iconic fast junker cars, biker gangs and knots of people clinging to the shards of traditional first-world mod cons, serves mostly to show up the traditional post-apocalyptic ideal. The genre now – in games like Fallout 3 or films like 28 Days Later – picks up on aspects of Mad Max but never quite engages with it in the same way, perhaps in part because of the changes in society that the last decades of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries have seen. As modern society – with its reliance on the capitalist, materialist ideal of high consumption – begins to be proven untenable by an economic slide away from prosperity, the nature of what might bring about an “apocalypse” changes and the values that society may fight for post-apocalypse also change.
In past articles on science-fiction I have talked about how the politics of the future inherently lend themselves to more socialist viewpoints; ideas of co-operation, of plentiful resources and of reduced need for work and more time for leisure. This can lead to a return to a rural or antique idyll – a leisure-focused society free from concerns such as poverty and want, and indeed a move away from concepts of money and the value of objects. Yet beneath this surface the issues raised – of the economics of a post-scarcity world – warrant deeper consideration.
In previous articles on the subject of evil in fiction, and its many manifestations, I have considered how the best depictions of evil show not that society is consistently active in it as a whole, or that people are frequently complicit in it, but that instead often there is a pervasive attitude of tolerance that manifests as a failure to condemn evil acts committed by others – the effect of societal prejudice is normalisation of evil, not necessarily increased participation in it. Indeed, my ultimate conclusion is that the most unsettling and unpleasant depictions show worlds where evil has “won” – that people have sleepwalked into a dystopic stasis as in Gormenghast or that inherently unfair systems have become widely accepted as in Under Heaven.
In the end, neither Cyber Formula GPX nor Redline had anything really to do with the kind of racing I wrote about save for being science-fiction, but watching them definitely shaped how I wrote about motor-racing.
This year I decided to have a go at National Novel Writing Month; I decided, rather than trying to write a 50,000 word work from scratch in 30 days, to expand an idea I had abandoned by 50,000 words in that time. For what it is worth, I still failed. But the effort put into the writing I did complete during that period drove me to continue writing afterwards and now the book-to-be is sitting at around 50,000 words and may be finished in first draft form at some point in the next few months.
This, however, is not an article specifically about my writing life. It is an article about the strange way I went about task of researching something central to the project, and what I found on the way.
While one can debate the value of An Unexpected Journey as an adaptation of Tolkein’s novel The Hobbit at great length, it is ultimately an entertaining film. I recently realised there are very few truly good fantasy films made; many are entertaining or fun but flawed, but few are unequivocally good. I was thus very surprised at the quality of the first in the three films loosely based on The Hobbit; it was tonally consistent throughout, visually impressive and had a real sense of being a film made with some love and care.
An Unexpected Journey is not, much to the concern of many people, a film of the novel The Hobbit. If it is an adaptation, it is one which does not closely follow the book and the fact that it has been sold as such is understandably an annoyance. Hearing that a slim but entertaining book – essentially a fairy-story – was to be turned into an epic scale trilogy of films was met with great concern that the resulting film would be driven by money more than creativity – a victim of a trend to split single stories into two parts in film essentially begun with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows but also seen with the final Twilight story and apparently the conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy.
I find the concept of comic books significantly more interesting than most of the best-known examples of them. The most popular and visible comics still, despite the significant increase in attention given to innovative and interesting niche-interest titles, are continuity-heavy and forebidding stock superhero ranges which could be argued to have long passed the point where they were fresh and interesting. What ultimately put me off was how seriously everything was taken yet how empty it seemed; there was little distinction being made in discussion between something being not for children in content terms and being mature in writing terms.
In a past article about Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series I talked about how a key part of the setting and overall mood is a result of the sense of inevitability and inescapability that is created. Routine becomes destructive and insular, and as a result any kind of change – even change from a traditionally “evil” source – is welcome to the reader. This ties in to what I see as an interesting possibility for historical or pseudohistorical fiction – an exploration of evil. The concept of the empirical novel, central to science-fiction in its consideration of the effects of a setting on its inhabitants, becomes interestingly mutated when the settings and attitudes being explored are real ones or close to real ones.