It is often said that constraints can fuel creativity. Well, the COVID-19 lockdown is a pretty big constraint.
Amid the sadness and death, it has been interesting to see the new art and culture that is already emerging. Creativity working up against the boundaries we have set for ourselves. Artists looking afresh at the technology we are using to communicate, and wondering what new modes of design and storytelling they might enable.
The most obvious example of this is video conferencing software. The grids of images that apps like Zoom use to display the other people in the chat have become part of our visual culture. I really enjoyed the Maltesers ‘Isolation Life’ series of adverts, and I love the video for ‘Phenom’ by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down (intriguing song, too). Continue reading “ZOOMSHIFT”
So, voluntary self-isolation becomes a mandatory lock-down.
Plenty of people have been discussing relevant films, TV shows and literature that deal with pandemics, deadly diseases and the like. GIFs from Shaun of the Dead, and all the other zombie movies, fill my timeline.
As for me, I have found that my mind keeps wandering back to three books I read in recent years, which all include moments of apocalyptic lock-down.
Nine days ago, the authoritarian president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prevailed in a surprise election. He is now expected to consolidate his power and further erode civil liberties.
My friend Mehmet, who is an avid reader of science fiction, just sent me a brilliant description of what it feels like to be a Turkish citizen right now, Reproduced with his permission.
We were really disappointed with the election results last week. It felt like crossing the event horizon to be sucked into the center of a black hole where reality is irreversibly bent and there is no way of going back. We both felt tired, depleted, lost for a couple of days but I guess we are adjusting now. For a split second hope was very vivid and then it went away again. We’re grasping for straws right now, but we know we have to find ways to be optimistic again. Some say black holes are beginnings of new universes, right?
I’m pleased to announce that a new short story of mine has been published over on Pornokitsch, the genre-loving, BFS Award-winning, Hugo-nominated and entirely-safe-for-work-despite-the-name online magazine.
My story is titled ‘01001001 01000011 01000101’. Its inspired in equal parts by Ray Bradbury, Tom Stoppard, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and the 2004 Dennis Quaid / Jake Gyllenhaal disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. It begins like this:
The book was big and heavy, which meant it would burn well.
Heh. I just noticed that Crisis and Conflicts was reviewed in Issue 2 (Winter 2017) edition of the BSFA Review. Stuart Carter channels militant General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross to summarise the stories.
Captain Robert Sharp’s ‘Round Trip’ slips into the anthology as an examination of crisis, rather than conflict. The theft of a long-range military transport ship from the Moon is no joking matter, and is traditionally a court martial offence. However, the Captain’s account of a bereaved hijacker’s attempting to win back his love may tug at the heart-strings of a few impressionable snowflakes uninterested in the virtues of heroism or patriotism.
At the beginning of this month, the U.S. sports website SBnation.com surprised its readers with an unexpected meditation on the game of (American) football. A piece titled ‘17776: What Football Will Look Like In The Future’ was posted to the site, alongside the usual results and recaps of recent baseball and basketball games. But when curious readers clicked on the headline, they were transported fifteen thousand years into the future, and billions of miles into deep space. Over the following weeks, new chapters to the story drew readers into writer Jon Bois’s appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.
The characters in the world are very old, possibly immortal. They use their new-found longevity to play and watch long and complex games, usually based around what we 21st century denizens recognise as gridiron football. Several far-future nationwide football games are described, all with a lineage that can be traced back to those we watch today. But all the games a far more extreme and heightened, having evolved over millennia. Just as, with biological evolution, the essential components of a given animal order, family or genus are revealed as they become more pronounced, so those aspects American football that are at the core of the sport are revealed when the future-humans iterate it to a ridiculous degree.
As well as the idea of play, Bois invites us to revel in the vastness and complexity of our planet, and the unique history of each patch of earth. In one particular sequence, I thought of the art of the Boyle Family, who pick random points on the globe and precisely reproduce the square metre of ground that they find there.
The format goes beyond what one might expect from a piece of online writing. It’s a collision of YouTube video animation, chat room text, and Google Earth renderings. One thought I had after reading a couple of chapters was that it should not be surprising that the format is surprising. Modern technology offers countless ways to render a narrative, and all Bois has done is to take a fairly well established format—a chat room script—and illustrate it with animations from a common online tool. It is not particularly radical, but the way we publish online (both the format of digital content, and it’s graphic design) has become so formulaic that even small and obvious departures from the norm suddenly feel innovative. In a Q&A, the author himself puts it very well:
I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.
On Facebook, a friend of mine writes:
it is such a brilliant piece of work, creative and touching and imaginative and smart, and it could only work here, in this medium. Is there anything else like that? I’m not sure.
There are precedents. First, in the Q&A, Bois cites Calvin and Hobbes as an influence on his writing. And there are moments in 17776 that feel exactly like Bill Watterson’s comic strip. In particular, the way in which the three narrators revel in the beauty of (in turn) the Earth, human endeavour and the game of American football, could easily be something Calvin comes out with on one of his meditative sledge rides.
I think a better comparison than Calvin and Hobbes is with the xkcd web comic. If Jon Bois is not a fan of Randall Munroe’s twice-weekly panels, I’d be astonished. xkcd characters often manifest the same geeky wonder at creation that Ten, Juice and finally Nine profess in 17776.
When ‘Click and Drag’ was first published, I wrote:
This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare. While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online. The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.
We can call 17776 ‘native’ internet art too, I think. The combination of text, GIFs and video only really work when read in a browser. I suppose it could be translated into a single YouTube video but that would be an act of adaptation, just as the ‘whole world’ images that xkcd fans have created of comic 1110 are an adaptation (and a spoiler) for the online version.
Projects like 17776 remind us that while the game of football may be old, the Internet is still a very new medium. It’s a delight to live in this moment of innovation, and to watch artists experiment within it.
I’m delighted to have a short story featured in Crises and Conflicts, a new anthology of space and military science fiction, just published by NewCon Press as part of their 10th Anniversary celebrations.
My piece, ‘Round Trip’ is a tale of loneliness, obsession, patience, and the tedious experience of waiting for a no-frills budget space shuttle to Jupiter (we’ve all be there).
In honour of the publication of The Good Shabti last month, I was invited onto the Tor.com podcast Midnight In Karachi, hosted by Mahvesh Murad. The show is a one-on-one interview format, and the previous guests are all incredibly accomplished SF writers such as Audrey Niffenegger, Patrick Ness,