Tag Archives: science fiction

You Have Been Watching …

In which The Author finds yet another security leak from the future

I won’t recap the plot of George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four in detail. If you haven’t read it (and why not?), it’s set in a totalitarian Britain, where every aspect of society is dominated by the shadowy Big Brother. The story’s protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth, where he and his colleagues literally rewrite history to conform with the Party’s ideology. (Orwell had worked for the BBC, so he’d probably learned a trick or two about news management.)
To cut a fairly short story even shorter: every home has a ‘telescreen’ which broadcasts the Party line day and night. It also acts as a two-way channel, allowing the state to monitor the activities of the citizens:
Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
Anyway, here in free and democratic Britain, the telescreens are slowly becoming ubiquitous. I’m in Thereisnospoon in Aberdare at the moment. When Tim Martin first launched his revolutionary pub idea, one of his USPs was ‘no jukeboxes, no televisions’. But, of course, the punters wanted to watch soccer, or the Six Nations, or the Test matches, or royal weddings, and eventually the company caved in and installed TV sets.
Which would be all very well if they were only switched on for sporting events and royal weddings. But they aren’t. They’re permanently tuned to the increasingly misnamed BBC News channel. Even with the sound off (most of the time), we’re treated to inaccurately subtitled versions of whatever Winston Smith Laura Kuenssberg has decided is newsworthy on any given day.
And that’s just the start.
Get on a bendy bus in Cardiff city centre to travel down to the Bay, and there are telescreens there, too. Amazingly enough, they’re also tuned to the BBC News channel.
Back in the city centre, there are at least two massive screens in the middle of the shopping precinct. There’s one in Queen Street, just opposite the Friary, and another next to St David’s Hall, facing onto Waterstones. Guess what they show, day and night.
A few years ago I was on a river taxi (possibly in Bristol), and that was also showing the BBC News.
In fact, it’s becoming a refreshing change to call in for a pint somewhere that isn’t showing the British Brainwashing Corporation’s take on things.
Before I sign off: for the benefit of you who live in the rest of the world, Plaid Cymru won the Rhondda constituency in Thursday’s elections. Ms Kuenssberg, and Steve Richards on Radio 4’s The Week in the Westminster Bubble, seem to have omitted to mention this historic result in the one-party state. Now you know …
(Who needs the telescreen, eh?)

The Valley of the Walking Dead

In which The Author really can’t see the point

Of the many and varied science fiction/fantasy/horror sub-genres which have grown up over the past fifty years or so, only one leaves me completely cold. Before I come to that one, I’ll get the obvious contenders out of the way first.
If it’s done with intelligence and wit, a reworking of the age-old alien encounter/invasion plot can be a worthwhile diversion from normal life.
I’m perfectly comfortable with the Mad Max-style scenario of every heavily armed man (or woman) for themselves. In fact, my recent proofreading assignment – Gavin G. Smith’s latest novel, coming to a bookshop near you early next year – includes just such a storyline. It’s executed with flair and humour, and makes a nice change from the relentless shoot-’em-ups of much of the sub-genre.
I enjoy having my mind stretched by bizarre time travel adventures, such as the ones Steven Moffat – at his witty and imaginative best – writes for Doctor Who.
The recent crop of superhero movies (with a couple of exceptions) have done a decent job of reviving the characters for a new tech-savvy generation. We’d all like to believe that the guy or girl next door has amazing powers, other than the incredible ability to start a DIY project at 8.30 on a Sunday morning and continue until the sun goes down. (But I digress …)
The war of humanity against the machines has been done to death (no pun intended) over the last nine decades, often with mixed results, but the basic idea stands the test of time. When it’s treated well, as in the original Terminator and Matrix films, there’s nothing better in the cinema.
Even vampires and werewolves, if they’re executed with style (as in the BBC’s original Being Human series), are interesting and tragically flawed characters. Who can’t help feeling sorry for Russell Tovey as George, doomed to change and unleash havoc every time there’s a full moon?
When it comes to heroic fantasy, I still hold to my opinion that nobody – but nobody – will ever hold a candle to J. R. R. Tolkien. All the other massive sagas of fantasy realms are just the book world’s equivalent of tribute bands – decent enough efforts, but nowhere near as good as the real thing. (Incidentally, the Wizards of Middle Earth didn’t become redundant when Sauron was defeated. They just experienced staff cutbacks.)
There have been other clever ideas, too, that promised more than they actually delivered. The brilliant FlashForward, based on an ingenious plot device, was cancelled after one series. That decision raised more questions than it answered – mainly about the wisdom of the studio executives.
The one aspect of the unreal world that I can’t come to terms with is the idea of the zombie apocalypse.
I simply haven’t been able to cotton on to the idea of the dead rising from their graves to feast on the rest of us. George A. Romero’s movies may be regarded as classics of the schlock horror genre these days, but they (and all the variations on the theme) have failed to make any impact on me.
I know The Walking Dead is cult viewing among many of my friends. It’s never appealed to me in the slightest. In Waterstones we used to sell lots of copies of a guide to the zombie apocalypse, a tie-in to something called World War Z. That was another frequent flyer, now I come to think of it; it often used to turn up among the books on World War 2, or in the Reference section, or – worst of all – in the Popular Science section. (Yes, boys and girls, there really were people working in a bookshop who actually believed that the dead would one day walk the Earth.)
With Hallowe’en on the horizon (unless you’re reading this in New Zealand, of course, where it’s already under way), I thought it was a good time to declare my utter scepticism in the face of the doomsayers. In my opinion, the only decent voodoo storyline in a film is in Live and Let Die, where the whole thing is faked anyway. I simply can’t take the idea seriously. I absolutely refuse to read any book featuring zombies, watch a film about zombies, or take an interest in any TV show involving zombies.
And you won’t change my mind on this. I don’t care about the enormous critical acclaim heaped on The Walking Dead. I will never waste a minute of my life on such trash.
After all, why should I bother? If I wanted to see a steady parade of shuffling, moaning, toothless, decaying, barely conscious individuals threatening the peace of the local community, I could just sit in Commercial Street in Aberdare on a Friday afternoon and watch the smackheads going into Boots for their methadone fixes.
A few years ago I started writing a short story called ‘The Valley of the Walking Dead’, which I was going to publish online. I abandoned work on it after a couple of weeks, when truth started to become stranger than fiction.
With all this out of my system, I think it’s timely to mention something I saw on Facebook earlier today. (I hope it’s a spoof. You never can tell these days.) It purported to be a sign at the Pentagon, giving useful advice to follow in the event of a zombie attack.
A few years ago my friend Ian H. did a solo zombie walk through the new shopping centre in Cardiff. He and I were hoping to rope a few people in, and make a bit of a political statement. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it as I had a late lecture. I don’t know what happened to the others, but Ian did it by himself.
Ian’s plan was for us to walk through the new consumer heartland of the capital city. I suggested a neat twist for the climax of the walk. My idea was for us to start off at different points in town and converge on the precinct outside St David’s Centre, where we’d stare blankly at the huge TV screen which shows the BBC rolling news 24/7. I honestly don’t know how many people would have got the message, though.