“No adjective for terror” – I am Legend

I found and read a copy of Richard Mattheson’s “I am Legend”. This is the 1950’s pulp fiction novel that was made into the 2007 Will Smith film of the same name. Towards the end of the book the hero notes that “he has no adjective for terror”. This struck me deeply, and I looked into it. What the man meant was that terror was so much part of his everyday life that it excited no comment, no adjective, and certainly no superlative. His life was so terrible, so full of terror, that the terribleness of it was quite literally unremarkable.

There is a lesson for us all here in the West, where to a degree, thus far in recent times at least, the reverse has been true. Our lives in general are not terrible. Today, in the West, terror is not everyday and unremarkable; it is exceptionally rare and very remarkable indeed.

But I got to thinking in particular about water, and also about life in general in a country like the UK where there is respect for the rule of law. We do not generally use adjectives to describe drinking water – or at least, not too often. Water is water. It is mere; it is taken for granted. There is, in the West, no “good” water nor “bad” water; there is merely water. In general, water is just water. It has no adjective. We have an implicit understanding in the West that water is always good, it is something that we have always completely took for granted.

I’m reminded of one of Freya Stark’s stories; on a yacht off Arabia sometime in the 1930’s, she welcomes an Arab on board, and the Arab drinks some water in her cabin. “What sweet water” he says – of the tanked water on a yacht! So accustomed, is this Arab, to water of widely different and perhaps much poorer quality, that he considers the water served to him by Ms Stark, to be “sweet”.

As with water, so with the rule of law. We  take it for granted that we can (at least in broad daylight in the leafy suburbs, not of the hours of darkness in some of our big cities) leave our houses and walk abroad without being armed. This quality of life, brought to us by the rule of law, is quite literally unremarkable. It has no adjective. We ought be thankful that this is so, and long may it continue.

Mortal engines

This is a short review of the film of Philip Reeve’s boys’ story, “Mortal Engines” which I watched on a flight, back before the lock-down, some three years ago.

I have gone full circle in terms of fiction. Eleven years ago I read my son’s copy of “Mortal Engines” whilst on a long-haul flight. I am just now sitting through the film version of the same story, also whilst on-board a long-haul flight. And to be perfectly honest the film is as weak and as thin as the original boys’ story. The original story was for children and I – as well I might as an adult – found it too thin. This film, however, is in effect not for children but for all (PG cert) and I found the same lack of conviction that I found in the original book, though perhaps for quite different reasons. The book and the series to which it belongs were successful in their time, doubly so really, in that Hollywood bought the options to make it into a film.

As a film, I found it cliched. It was a triumph of special effects over plot, as so many sci-fi films are these days. I confess I’m not a fan of Hugo Weaving’s work and he plays the baddie in this film. I did like his role as Agent Smith in The Matrix, but not his Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. As a fan of the LOTR I’m familiar with Elrond as a character and I didn’t like at all the way he played Elrond: not at all like the character in the book. Here in Mortal Engines, he plays the Bearded Sultry Older Man. There is a beautiful daughter, a geeky hero and a second male lead with a strong Irish accent. It was quite literally tiresome to watch.

It would be interesting to see who wrote the screenplay for the adaption of Philip Reeves’ original novel. I had to give up watching, about a half hour from the end. It was so predictable and conventional I literally could not be bothered to watch it. Yet, along the way, amidst all the usual adventure thriller science-fiction memes and tropes, were some very interesting nuggets. This told me something about the screenwriters, hence my earlier comments. I’ve spent some time studying the Bible, and an aspect of doing so is what is called “redaction criticism”. Today we think of “redaction” as removing text from a document for whatever reason. But “redaction criticism” is trying to understand the use by biblical authors, of earlier written material. Take an example from the “Lord of the Rings”: recall the character Aragorn. Do we know if Tolkien, in his youth, read “The last of the Mohicans”? For Tolkien’s character Aragorn so closely resembles Fennimore Cooper’s character “Hawkeye” that it seems likely that Tolkien would have, and may have been influenced thereby. There is no way of knowing, of course. This then, is redaction criticism. And my senses are alert to it here: what influences were there on the screenwriters for this picture? It matters to me.

The first was the Shrike. Where does this immortal android zombie come from? Does he appear in the original books? I cannot now recall. I ask this because “the Shrike” is a strange and shadowy character in Dan Simmons’s Endymion in his very readable Hyperion novels. A dread figure, often invoked, rarely seen, much feared. Could Simmons’s work have influenced the screenwriters here? The Shrike in this Mortal Engines film excites some sympathy; there is, deep within it, some deeply buried kernel of humanity, some taste-bomb of humaneness that emerges to save the life of the young hero.

The second was the use of the term “shield wall” – towards which the travelling city of London is making its way. The term “Shield wall” originates in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. An interesting juxtaposition, particularly when we see that this “Shield Wall” is actually located in the heart of central Asia, in what is now the Tien Shan of China.

Then, we have the environmentalist trope. I got the distinct sense that these marauding, raiding rolling cities, using up resources, harming the environment, represent the west, whereas the fixed buildings hidden behind the shield wall, are the east – the home of the “anti-tractionists”. They are portrayed as somehow better, and somehow inherently eastern. It is all a bit naïve and simplistic, and it can be, for it can easily be passed off as being for children, or being “just” science-fiction. But actually it’s quite cleverly crafted cultural spin and I don’t care for it as such.

Ahead of its time: Robert Heinlein’s “Friday”

I first read “Friday” not long after it came out. It remains a remarkable novel, worth reviewing and unpicking even now forty years after its release. It’s a “Cyberpunk” novel published two years before William Gibson published “Neuromancer”; it was environmentally aware decades before the modern movement to environmental sustainability.  It posits a balkanised North America that to this day few if any other authors have dared describe. Its heroine, the female spy of the title, remains a relatively unknown icon of feminine power and ability.

“Friday” addresses racial prejudice and everyday sexism. It addresses police brutality, corruption amongst public employees, and – a favourite theme for Heinlein – the relationship of the individual with the state.  It upsets conventional storybook wisdom and in this respect is years ahead of its time. It would make a cracking film if only someone would write a screenplay for it.

Spoiler alert! Friday Jones, a female James Bond, calls herself a “combat courier”.  She is also an “artificial person”, that is, she is not born of woman, but a genetically enhanced superhuman rather like the characters hunted down by Deckard in “Blade Runner”.  She kills someone she finds following her while passing through an airport in Kenya. Hours later, the Nairobi Hilton is fire-bombed minutes after she checks out. She fails to connect these incidents. Arriving back at base in North America, she settles down for a ride in a horse-drawn carriage: in this world, fossil-fuel driven ground vehicles are not allowed. They are somewhere in what today is the Rust Belt of Illinois and Michigan: the chauffeur notes that “two hundred years ago, all these trees and fields were factories“.

Seconds later she is betrayed by that same chauffeur, captured by the enemy, and interrogated. Heinlein subverts the usual spy genre tropes and puts the obligatory torture scene (from which the hero escapes, as the climax of the book, right near the end) right at the beginning. Torturing a woman also is not normally the done thing. But Friday remains cheerful: she suggests to her torturer that he go and do something which she believes is anatomically possible, for some males…

She’s rescued, and nursed back to health. Her boss, the character in this story representing Ian Fleming’s “M”, sends her on break, and she goes to New Zealand to see her adopted family. Heinlein has always had innovative and unusual (and indeed questionable) ideas about marriage and sex. Friday belongs to a “line” or “group” marriage. Men and women, but in a line, as if for a dance. The difference is, all of the men, maybe 2, 3, 4 or eight men, are married to all of the women. Like Don Henley sings, “this could be heaven or it could be hell”…

All seems well until the “senior wife” in the marriage (the oldest wife and in this case one of the founding members of the marriage) finds out that Friday is an “artificial person”. Friday is summarily divorced. One minute, in the bosom of her family, the next, out on the street.

On the rebound, our heroine has a fling with a handsome Canadian airline pilot. As you do…perhaps. While she is in bed with him, a terrible world event happens, something rather like 9/11 but many orders of magnitude worse. “Black Thursday” or something like that. All airline traffic is stopped. Governments collapse; martial law is introduced; the Four Horseman have a brief canter through the world, and tens of thousands of people die or are imprisoned. Armed police come to the airline pilots house, and there is violence: a policeman lays hands on someone. Friday kills him, and she has to flee.

She spends a long time travelling round what in our world is the continental United States, trying to get back to base and report in to her boss. In this world, the United States has long gone: it is several different countries – the Chicago Imperium; British Columbia, the Republic of California, and the Lone Star Republic.  The story is set in the late fifties – we know this because at one point a lady of a certain age buys a lottery ticket ending in “99”, saying that this is a lucky number – it was the year of her birth. But we don’t know what century – certainly well into the 3rd Millennium. There is faster than light travel and a dozen or so settled planets around different stars. All industry and all vehicles are powered by “Shipstone” batteries, which working in some unknown proprietary way. Commercial aircraft are “semi-ballistic” glide rockets undertaking transcontinental journeys in merely hours. 

A favourite device of Heinlein’s is to see society through its small ads: in this part of the book there are fascinating job adverts: “Tranuranics Golden Division on Planet Golden around Procyon-B wants experienced mining engineers. Five year renewable contract”…the reader is told that the advert omits to mention that humans are unlikely to survive 5 years in the job…

Eventually Friday makes it back to her boss and checks in: he sets her to work on something we take for granted with Google and the internet: completely undirected and unsupervised research. This would have been very difficult to do in 1982 without access to reference libraries of books. After some weeks of this he rings her up in the middle of the night, and asks her “when will the next outbreak of Bubonic plague be?” A voice tells him the answer, and she is astonished to find that the voice is her own. That knowledge is the side-effect almost, the fruit, of her undirected research.  A few days later, her boss, an old man, is dead of natural causes, and she is out of a job.

Friday gets another job eventually – couriering something out to the royal family on The Realm, a fabulously rich and infamously totalitarian space colony. On the starship voyage out there, she becomes aware that she is pregnant and being closely watched by bodyguards everywhere. She works out that the unborn child planted within her is destined to become a royal daughter. She will go into hospital alive, go under anaesthetic for what she thinks is a minor procedure, and that will be the end of her.

With some difficulty, Friday escapes: she jumps ship at a colony world halfway; more by luck and plot devices than her own skill and judgement. She escapes from her bodyguards, disappears into the woods, and settles down to a normal existence as a colony wife, Cub den leader and mother.

Magnum at Islington Assembly Halls

I’ve been listening to Magnum since the 1980’s. I first heard their single “Invasion” played off a cassette tape at a Venture Scout camp sometime around 1982, and I never looked back. Then, some years later, I heard and then bought their album “Chase the Dragon” with its opening song “Soldier of the line”. To this day, “Soldier of the line” still blows me away. Overblown, portentous and pompous dungeons-and-dragons style heavy metal music at its very best! Strictly speaking I think “melodic hard rock” is the more correct term – that probably just means heavy metal with keyboards.

In recent years I’ve been getting back into 1980’s rock music, whilst not neglecting other more modern musical genres. I can listen to classic old heavy metal, for example Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye”, as easily as I can to Linkin Park, Eminem, Faithless, Madonna or the Indigo Girls. And so it was that I bought myself a ticket to a rock concert, and on a blustery grey late winter evening, took myself off by train to Highbury and Islington, to see Magnum.

I came out the tube station and oriented myself, and set off. I do like the inner city; it is almost a “guilty pleasure”. Almost it were, I should feel bad, because I like the atmosphere – the seedy kebab shops, the little minicab offices, the harshly lit open-all-hours grocers, the rejuvenated Greek restaurants with little tables outside. People bustling up and down – couriers, workers going home, people out for the evening. I passed the venue on the opposite side, and walked on for a mile or so before turning back in the gathering darkness. There’s something about a city at dusk that attracts me, especially London.

Entering the venue, I find myself in a queue of older men and a smaller handful of women. There’s a fair amount of facial hair on show. Everyone is polite. Once inside, I found the bar and had a pint of some Italian lager in a plastic glass. Leaning against the bar, wearing a leather hat, I felt like Paul Hogan in the old Fosters advert: “Do you know any Rolf Harris, mate?” NO. “Looks like it’s gonna be a good night…”

The opening act were a two-piece called Theia, from Burton-on-Trent. I gave them the time of day because they were from my neck of the woods. Harmless; a drummer and a guitarist singer who was in good voice. It’s great to see new people being supported and championed. Not so much them supporting Magnum, as Magnum supporting them.

The main support act were a six-piece called VEGA, very much in the melodic hard rock tradition. Quite listenable though there is a limit to how much of this kind of thing I can take in one evening. There was a tendency for this vocalist (and the first vocalist too for that matter) to sound to me a bit like Jon Bon Jovi. Their final song was great; I was listening to it thinking, this has a great Def Leppard groove…at which point I became aware that they were covering Def Leppard’s “Animal”…

Bob Catley and Magnum came on and opened with a crowd-pleaser, their single “Days of no trust”. They followed this with “Lost on the road to Eternity”, and then the opening song to their new album, “The Monster roars”. Guitarist Tony Clarkin is Magnum’s lyricist, and I’ve been an admirer of his work most of my adult life. In “The Monster roars” you hear the words “stark reality“…these words also appear in their classic song “How Far Jerusalem” – “In stark reality/thy will be done/for you, for them, for me.” It’s interesting to me to see writers re-using ideas and concepts over and over again.

A bit over half-way through, the keyboard introduction to their classic “Les Morts Dansant” rang out and the crowd went wild. This opened the part of the set consisting of very much older material. And unfortunately, “very much older” is also a description of all of us and not excepting Bob Catley’s voice. I had been in conversation earlier with a fellow fan, who reckoned that voices could fail as one grows older, and singing in a different key might be an answer. “Les Morts Dansant” though a great song, was too much for Bob Catley’s vocal chords to really give of their best tonight. They followed this with – by no means tongue-in-cheek – “Rockin’ Chair” – i ain’t ready for no rockin’ chair. Like Jethro Tull, we may be too old to rock-n-roll but too young to die…we’ll see about that. One may hope…

Then there was “Vigilante”, and during this song unfortunately I had to leave in order to get home in time. That ain’t rock-n-roll but it is working for a living. A shame to have missed the last three songs in the set. (I found out that these were “Kingdom of Madness” from right back in the 1970’s, “On a storyteller’s night”, and “Sacred hour” from the Chase the Dragon LP.) All told, a great night: great value, great fun, great rock-n-roll.