Tag: things i like

Rome and when not to talk about it.

 So, I’ve been Instagramming (if that’s the term) a handful of photographs from a recent trip that the lovely wife and I took to Europe. Here are a couple.

As my other half can attest to, visiting Rome was about the closest to a religious experience as you will ever find me. My relationship with history is long-running. You can probably thank Asterix for getting me interested in the ancient world, not to forget being exposed to The Life of Brian at any early age. Put together, they both explain a lot about me, really.

My knowledge of Rome is weirdly off, though. I can talk with some limited authority on the mid- to late-Republican era, and a fair slice of the early Empire. There’s plenty I don’t know, of course, but the broad strokes are all there. Once I get post-AD476 and the historical footnote of Romulus Augustulus, I’ve got nothing (*). Little surprise, then, that as my wife and I wandered a modern city looking at ancient monuments, I expressed dismay when finding that certain buildings may have been destroyed or repurposed, say, 1,500 years beforehand.

All that said, it was slightly eerie how well I could navigate the city by ancient landmarks. The Plain of Mars, say, no longer existed, but I could place the Temple of Castor and Pollux in relation to other sites, knew where to go to find my Imperial Fora, and found our way to the Pantheon with relative ease. Although, when I got to that amazing building, I promptly looked confused at the amount of Christian regalia. The site had been occupied for centuries past its original purpose after all, and I shouldn’t have been that surprised that Rome, of all places, had a wee bit of a Catholic bent but still – the Pantheon? They do realise the name refers back to multiple Gods and all, right?

Now, a Rome-related aside: I have recently learned (or more accurately: reminded myself) that I can be an unwitting arse when it comes to my knowledge of certain topics. I see no reason to be shy about my enthusiasm for Stuff, but I could be better at knowing my time and place. To wit: I recently attended an all-day workshop for my job, which was filled to the brim with corporate speak. While giving a presentation, one of the senior managers mentioned his love of Roman history and used it as a bridge into how people always make the mistakes of the past, blah blah. This perked me up immeasurably, as the shared interest gave me an all-too-brief humanising insight into a man who, a few months before, had been helping to make my peers redundant. ‘At least he’d have gotten my Cicero reference,’ I thought. Anyhow, I bailed him up during the morning tea that followed and, over half a muffin, started rambling about what particular era of Imperial Rome the company’s current state related to the most. Perhaps we were Nerva, providing a bridge to the certainty of the future after the chaos of the past. Or even Vespasian, forging a new dynasty and a period of stability following the mistakes of Vitellius and Otho. Within about twenty seconds – the length of time it took this senior manager to say, in a slightly strangled fashion, ‘which one was he then?’ – it became abundantly clear that he knew sweet bugger-all about Rome and was just trying to make a point. Yet, rather than stopping, I charged on with a potted history of the Year of the Four Emperors until, eyes filled with panic, he managed to attract the attention of someone else and pretend he had a very important conversation to take part in on the other side of the room.

One part of me – and I think, rightly so – says ‘screw him, that’ll teach him to mention Ancient Rome in passing without knowing enough about the turbulent events that followed the demise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty’. Another part of me realises that’s far too combative an angle to take and I should keep myself in my box more often. It’s something which I’m oddly sensitive to; I like knowing things, and I like sharing that knowledge with others. But, there’s nothing quite so distancing as being an insufferable know-it-all. Just look at Hadrian, for example! He… oh wait, never mind.

(*) = this isn’t unique to Rome, by the way. I like to think of myself as having a keen interest in Byzantine history but if I’m honest with myself I only really keep track of the 10th-12th centuries – Alexius (Alexii?) ad infinitum and all that. My knowledge of the Middle East drops off somewhere around late antiquity and picks up again in the twentieth centuries, some sections of the Ottoman Empire’s workings notwithstanding. I am, to be honest with myself, an over-informed generalist in such matters.

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Ghosts, and revelations

It’s the classic question: “where do you get your ideas from?”. My brother asked me the question the other day, when we were talking about my still-in-progress novel. That’s quite a phrase, isn’t it? Still in progress. It assumes so much, such as that – one day – the document will be complete, the bow drawn finally around the sprawling story. When does still in progress become incomplete, then unfinished, abandoned? There have been literally months since I wrote a word of Ghosts of the Revolution. But, I still feel good about it. It has strong bones. Sometime soon, once I get a little more free time (hahahaha!), I’ll write some more. I have another legacy to work on for the time being, all 4.62kg of her.

Back to the question. To quote the great Alan Moore, there’s always someone who asks such a thing…
“where do you get your ideas from?’ And you know what we do? We sneer. … The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we are scared that someone will find out.’

I have a bit of an answer. Not much, but a little. I’ll take Ghosts… as an example because, well, it’s the biggest, most ambitious work that I’ve attempted (if not quite there yet). First off, I simply started by writing down things that interest me. Loose ideas, circling, germinating. The list includes both images and concepts, and had (amongst many others) the following ingredients;

Harbin. It’s in northern China, just another city. But a hundred years ago, it was occupied by Russians, building a rail-line in the bandit-infested Manchurian badlands to short-cut their way to the Pacific. A dozen years later, and the city is a hold-out of pro-Tsarist refugees, the ‘Whites’ who lost the Civil War against the ascendant communists. A decade after that, and the city is surrounded by Japanese forces, who are busy crafting a fake Manchurian empire to justify their expansionism. The city is an onion, layers peeling back.

I have, in my possession, a copy of a marriage certificate belonging to a man found in Harbin, claiming to be a British national. I have copies of the correspondence backward and forward between embassies, trying to determine who he was, whether he was indeed who he said he was, and how and why he was there. It sounds like the start of a mystery novel.

I’m reading Ellroy, Hammett and Chandler. Noir, pulp. It’s sex and death, molls and gangsters, private eyes and femme fatales. It’s the thirties, the forties, the fifties. I wonder what Marlowe would look like in a foreign country.

I am reading about robotics, and about how much development came in the early twentieth century. And, how automatons had an era of popularity around the turn of the century (and yes, I have seen Hugo before you ask). I wonder how these would operate in a world that was different from ours, just a little.

I’m on the Dieselpunks website, realising how much I love the aesthetic of that day and age. The images of retrofitted technology on that website and others strikes a chord with me far more than, say, the ‘brown goth’ chic of so much steampunk (and yes, I realise that it’s a stereotype, but it’s one I’m confronted with more often than not).

Next, some Mad Max on the television, some My Chemical Romance pumping through the headphones. It’s post-apocalypse, but the soundtrack is spiky teen aggression and supercharged day-glo. I imagine a motorcycle gang on the Russian tundra, leftovers of the Civil War, left parent-less by famine and strife, ready to create their own civilisation from the shattered ruins of what came before. They are Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Children, black-eyed and orphaned.

I am flicking through a Frankenstein comic by Grant Morrison. He describes the concept that water has been found to take on different chemical properties depending on how you label and describe the container it is stored within. What if you labelled the water ‘love’? Or ‘cure’? And then, what about, ‘hate’ or ‘weapon’? Which do you think humans would use more often? (The concept is bogus, apparently, but it’s unbelievably fascinating in that way so much pseudoscience is.)

I have shipping lists, detailing the refugees of a dozen wars. Russians leaving Asia by Chinese ports, bound for Australia and other Commonwealth countries. They list families, individuals, spinsters and widows. Religion: Orthodox, athiest and Old Believer.

I’m watching del Toro’s first Hellboy movie, and I come across the scene where a man is thrown into an quasi-magical explosion. As he hits the edge, his flesh strips away but the body continues to move and react. The skull’s jaw widens, as if to scream.

There’s more than that, unsurprisingly, but I hope this helps in seeing how some ideas start coming together. Essentially, begin with things that interest you, and find new ways to connect them. And, don’t be afraid if most of your jottings end up in the bin. I junked a good three-quarters of what I initially thought I was going to write: or, to put it another way, the story started swiftly outgrowing those concepts I’d begun with. That’s a good thing; it means it’s taking on a life of its own.

Now, a realisation that I made early on was as follows: be prepared to either make yourself an expert, or make shit up. If your story has even a passing resemblance to reality, your instinct should be to research until your eyes bleed. This is also a good thing, to a point. The more you know, the more story ideas will emerge. The fuller and realer your characters will become; the world that they inhabit will have more depth and structure. Think of it like the difference between filming a movie on a cheap set – the buildings only paper-thin – versus filming on location, where the actors and director can get into the trenches and understand the world the characters inhabit. I have pages upon pages bookmarked (both physical tomes and on the internet) detailing wars, street maps, skeletal structures of various animals, cars, clothes, uniforms, biographies, death camps, who was who in various embassies and delegations. The list goes on. But if you’re basing something on reality, there’s always more to know, and someone who will know more than you. The former will drag you down in detail and potentially cause you to lose the spark of whatever tale you wanted to tell, while the latter is a constant bogeyman hanging over your head – in your quest for authenticity, you’ll miss some vital detail and be greeted with howls of condemnation from the reader. So, don’t be afraid to make it up. That’s probablt part of the joy found in writing fantasy or speculative fiction: except in cases where you’re working in a shared (i.e., franchised) universe, things that work however the hell you want them to.

This quickly became an easy decision for me, in that I had already decided to write an alternative history of sorts; the real world, off by a few degrees, changed incrementally at some earlier stage. The background reading I did gave me street names and geography, but I could paint the buildings whatever colour I wanted, and tear down or rebuild anything that didn’t suit my narrative. And if I didn’t know about it in the first place, well, no big loss; the over-informed reader could suspend disbelief on that small point because s/he was already suspending disbelief over a number of other things.

This reminds me, in a roundabout way, of a comic book called S.H.I.E.L.D., which came out a year or two ago and was intended to tell a ‘secret history’ of Marvel Comics’ shared universe. It was a clever enough conceit, weaving in real-life luminaries such as Da Vinci and Isaac Newton into broader conspiracies of a less-than-real world. My enjoyment came tumbling down over the most minor of issues; a double-page spread showed Da Vinci looking over a Renaissance-era Roman cityscape while a giant creature rampaged the Eternal City. And there, smack bang in the mid-ground, was a building that I knew had been built hundreds of years after that era. The frustration I had lingered for pages thereafter. I was frustrated that the artist hadn’t done enough research; it was like he’d taken a picture of the city and drawn over anything he suspected looking too modern, but didn’t notice something that was ‘fake ancient’. My enjoyment of the book faded as the story progressed – more to do with the writing than the artwork – but I can trace my first flicker of disapproval from that image.

I’ll be back next time with some further minor epiphanies on the writing process.But before I go, a quick comment that the thoughts above are not, by any stretch of the imagination, enough to turn you into a best-selling novelist, or even a published author. I’d think that getting a good agent and finishing your book would be the best place to start for that (and not necessarily in that order). These are the baby steps only, as taught by someone only just learning to crawl.

“… and tell them Carl Sagan sent you!” – Atomic Robo, babies and the Princess Bride Factor

The Baby Of Undisclosed Gender is on their way, with progress marked by my beautiful wife’s expanding belly and the continuing accumulation of Necessary Items. These include but are not limited to: furniture, clothes, nappies, wall decals, stuffed toys, Moses baskets, prams, mobiles, towels, bibs and incredibly tiny socks. Responsible father-to-be that I am, my role in life is likely to expand shortly to the location of hazardous items (whether poisonous, inedible, delicate and dangerously pointy) and moving them to shelves out of reach from undiscerning fingers.

That discerning fatherly eye has turned, inevitably, to the bookshelf. There are two things at play here. First: gadzooks, I must remove those more precious tomes to higher ground rather than letting them get dribbled and drooled upon and/or fall heavily upon my unsuspecting progeny. Second: what sort of content do they have, and would I really think them fit fare for The Babe With No Name when they grow up? Some items clearly have the answer ‘sweet jesus no’, for all the obvious reasons; Preacher, Scalped and my smattering of Chuck Palahniuk novels will disappear to the higher shelves for many years to come, as will anything else with strong adult themes (I’m looking at you, Lost Girls). Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is a fantastic series, and one I’d be encourage pretty much anyone to read, but it’s not the sort of work that leads to balancing your bubba on a knee to read aloud. That’s not a critique of the work or author – Gaiman didn’t target it at the pre-teen market, and would probably be surprised if you suggested it – but rather an appreciation that its mix of genre might not be right for such an audience. Coraline, Wolves in the Walls, The Graveyard Book – yes. Serial killers with fanged mouths for eyes, not so much.

Reason #1 why Neil Gaiman's 'The Sandman' can wait until later years...

There are other stories that are a little more age-less though. Let’s call it the Princess Bride Factor; that special mix of action, romance, intrigue and humour that means anyone – young or old, boy or girl – can find something interesting and wonderful to latch onto. Goscinny & Uderzo’s Asterix has that for me; I read it as a kid and can happily read it as an adult, and as such didn’t hesitate to buy a collection of stories for my offspring-to-be. Tintin falls into the same category (and as a side comment I’d be keen to know whether the recent movie manages to capture that essence; I’ll probably find out this weekend, as we have stupidly hot days forecasted and am keen to find somewhere comfortably air-conditioned in which to while away the days).

The Princess Bride Factor is incredibly important for me; I want my child to love stories no matter how they’re presented or what sort of characters are in there. Boys aren’t genetically programmed to despise pink and like blue, any more than girls have any inherent predisposition to Barbie dolls over guns, swords and dragons. What we like or don’t like is learned. The things I read as a child have (mostly) stayed with me through to adulthood, and so that learning starts early.

Which brings me around, rather circuitously, to Atomic Robo. AR is a special sort of story. It is inclusive without pandering to the lowest common denominator. It has that special quality of being equally accessible to a kid or adult. There’s a certain joy to its storytelling that is rare nowadays. It has robots, dinosaurs, strong female characters, ‘adventure science’, gangsters, and lightning battles between Tesla and Edison. It’s not necessarily packed with laughs on every page, but it’s undisputedly FUN.

And, it’s also insanely cheap. If you have a smartphone, iPad or equivalent, go download the Comixology app for free, now. That’s fine, I’m happy to wait here. Okay, done?  You’ve now got access to literally thousands of digital comics for incredibly reasonable prices. Atomic Robo has bargain-basement prices – 99 cents an issue, or less than five bucks per collection (a bundled storyline)– and plenty of freebies too. 2011’s Free Comic Book Day tale, for example, has a gun-wielding dinosaur at a science fair who steals the A-Team’s van. What more could you possibly want out of a comic book than that?

So, Atomic Robo it is then. Not for a pre-school jellybean, but certainly it’s family friendly enough that I’d gladly encourage him/her to read them whilst they’re still in single figures.

If you want to know more about Atomic Robo, the website is here. I’d recommend you also read the creative team’s promise to the reader, and their blog entries where they describe their approach and what kids think of their books. And kudos where it counts, various people / sites that put me onto the book in the first place are: ComicsAlliance, where AR featured in their top books of 2011; the crew at NonCanonical, who produce the finest comic book-related podcasts I know; and All-Star Comics, Melbourne’s newest and best comic book shop (hi Mitch & Troy!).

And finally, if you were wondering where this blog’s title came from…

run

I have never really been one for sport. I can blame my height, in some way, for my lack of interest. I was growing an inch a month in my formative years – I hit 6’ around my thirteenth birthday – and found it hard to keep hand-eye coordination when the hand was that little bit further away than last week. But, my disinterest came earlier than that. An anomaly in country Australia, I grew up with no interest whatsoever in football but a lot of interest in chimerae, manticores and Arthurian knights. When asked at age 7 what my favourite sport was, I asked if falconry counted. Not that I’d ever done it, but it just looked awesome.

By my teenage years I had an aversion to any form of team-based activity. This was despite the best efforts of my parents who were desperately keen to get me out from behind a book and out into the sunshine. I managed perhaps a month of soccer practice but never played an actual game, and then a season of basketball where I ran back and forth on the court waving my arms around but failing to make any difference to the match’s outcome. The opposing side were intimidated by my height for all of thirty seconds, before realising I was an awkward scarecrow with no skill beyond being an obstacle. I was in good company at least; the team was terrible , a ragtag bunch of misfits that would in some movie universe get Emilio Estevez as a coach and go on to win the championship. Instead, we got a 20-something manager from the local K-Mart who didn’t even bother turning up to a couple of games. We didn’t win a single match all year.

Now, I run. I’ve been jogging for the last couple of years, around once a week. I like jogging. You can do it by yourself and listen to your favourite music while you do it. It can last for as long or as short as you want, and it requires nearly zero preparation or equipment. I’ve also done a handful of charity runs over the last year or two, and done respectable times for 8km and 14.5km tracks. I never take it too seriously – I have a cheap pair of tracksuit pants rather than one of those disturbing form-fitting numbers I tend to see, and my t-shirts are invariably black with pictures of vampires on them, rather than some microfibre-superbreathable yellow number – but I run weekly, and have built up my stamina over time. Running that distance, you start to learn things about yourself; how I roll my ankle a little more than I should, how I land more heavily on my left foot than my right, how if I run long and hard enough when it’s hot the sweat dries on my brow like rough salt. I’ve also learned it doesn’t get incredibly easier with time, per se, but it’s just become simpler now to drown out that little wheedling voice in your head that consoles you, says you’ve done an okay job, done enough and should just turn around and walk home. Now I can just run through that, pick up my pace and attack another hill.

Scalped

Scalped is a dirty, gruesome, ugly and violent tale. It is steeped in deception, depravity and squalor. I also recommend it unreservedly as long as you don’t mind a near-complete lack of redemption in your fiction. Seriously, that is a recommendation; it’s just purposefully stuck at the end of the second act, where everything is going horribly and you don’t know how anyone is going to talk or fight their way out of their situation. It has no heroes, just dark, wounded souls stuck neck-deep in moral quicksand. Any glimmer of light at the end of a tunnel is just a train bearing down.

The setting is Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, present day. The Rez is poor, dirt poor, but the newly opened casino promises to generate some much-needed money for the region. Pity that the tribal leaders are corrupt, and the casino is built on dirty money.  The Chief, Red Crow, is a brutal thug, but he’s the closest thing to a figure of authority that the Rez has – he’s a Native American Al Swearengen, for those that are a fan of HBO’s Deadwood.  Red Crow is as much nemesis as ally to the chief protagonist, Dashiell Bad Horse. Recently returned to the Rez, Dash works his way into Red Crow’s inner circle… as well he might, as he’s also an undercover FBI agent working to pin crimes on the Chief to put him away once and for all. Pity the local FBI have a very personal beef with Red Crow and will happily throw Dash in his way, pity that Red Crow had a thing for Dash’s mother back in the day, pity that Dash has feelings for Red Crow’s junkie daughter, pity that the gangsters who backed the casino are sniffing around for signs of weakness. And, pity that Dash’s mother has turned up dead in a ditch.

Scalped is, I should add, a comic book. Pack away any vestiges of the tired ‘capes and underpants on the outside’ tropes that you may be hanging onto. Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera have crafted something special here.

I found the first collection, Indian Country, was tough-going, and if I hadn’t heard increasingly good reviews about it I might have left it there. That would have been a mistake. The second collection, Dead Mothers, takes the plots and characters of the opening story arc and extrapolates them into an increasingly gripping tale. Before long, you’re rooting for the bad guys… then realising that almost all of them are bad guys in their own way. Bad, corrupt, beaten down, prideful, vengeful, weak.

Hang in there, if you can – you will be rewarded.

(next time: I’ll get back to wrapping up that potted history of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds…)