Why I Stopped Watching The Walking Dead

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(Some minor spoilers here for the season seven premiere of The Walking Dead – no names, but some context.)

Halloween is just around the corner and like the coming of the Jack o’Lanterns a new season of The Walking Dead has launched.

AMC’s zombie apocalypse show has been a ratings juggernaut and a huge money-spinner.  I’ve watched it from the start because I like intelligent horror that has something to say about the world around us.  When the trappings of society are stripped away, humans become the real monsters and the survivors the real walking dead, well, that seemed like an interesting discussion to have.

The season premiere that aired in the US on Sunday and in the UK on Monday will be my last.

Some criticism has been levelled at the degree of violence in that episode.  While the series has always been gory, it’s generally been a fantasy violence, punctuated by the regular splitting of zombie heads.  But this episode stepped into a new arena of nastiness with the kind of brutality you could, in your darkest moments, imagine being inflicted on a loved one.  And the creators didn’t flinch from showing it again, and again.

And yet it wasn’t the physical violence that actually killed the series for me, as gut-churning as it was.  There was another form of brutality here.

I’m not thin-skinned.  I’m not afraid of violence, or death; I know both well.  I used to be a journalist.  I’ve seen dead bodies, murder victims, corpses brought out of fires.  I’ve watched an autopsy.  I’ve seen the wounds a gunshot makes, and an axe.  I’ve been in the centre of a riot, two actually.  I’ve watched my mother die.  And I stood beside my father a moment after his life ended.  That well of grief is hard to plumb.

That’s the point here.

This is the true failing of The Walking Dead: they disregarded the basic humanity of their viewers.

I imagine the show’s creators thought they were creating something sublime in this story.  Instead of wallowing in brutality for its own sake like the worst of the horror genre, they were going to show the true cost of violence, the humanity.  But they ended up doing the opposite in a ham-fisted attempt to make their point.

The death of a beloved character tells you everything you need to know about this world: that it is without pity, that survival is all, that some humans are nasty and venal and violent when pushed to their limits, and that others, the majority, are good and caring, that brutality is everywhere and that actions have consequences.

The death of a second beloved character, what does that tell you?  The same?  The same only louder?  What is the point – we already got that?

The gory murders of *all* the beloved characters, even if it’s only a vision in Rick’s head, does that tell you any more?  Does that provide a revelation as a reward for enduring emotional pain?  No, we understood everything we needed to know within the first five minutes.

Now it’s just torture.

But wait, there’s more.

An extended sequence where a father is put through one of the worst torments imaginable, to mutilate his own son to save the lives of others, what extra does that tell us?  That this world is *even more* pitiless, more violent?  If it’s not telling us anything new, there’s no point in it being there.

If it’s not telling us anything new, and it’s causing us emotional pain, it’s a betrayal of the viewer.  Sadism.  Causing hurt just because you can, and then walking away and thinking how clever you are that you have the power to manipulate the emotions of others.

One thing you learn as a writer is that you don’t need to show everything.  A look, the trace of a fingertip on skin, subtlety can be more devastating than every second shown in HD.  That’s because any work of fiction is a partnership: what the creators bring to it, and what the readers or viewers bring from their life experience.  And those readers and viewers are great.  They don’t need dollops of dumb because they have rich lives of love and suffering and anger and grief, and they access all those feelings with the merest hint.

They don’t need to see a beloved character’s eye hanging out, and then someone saying his eye is hanging out, and another shot of his eye hanging out.  They just need to hear the sound of the blow and they are distraught.

And just to keep labouring this point, in my homage to the creators of The Walking Dead, if you’re hungry and someone offers you a peanut butter sandwich, do you want a spread of the filling or do you want it six-inches thick?  Does using the whole jar of peanut butter, so it cloys and clags and chokes, make for a better sandwich?  Because there’s more?

It’s just a TV show.  Except it’s not.  Stories are fundamental to the human experience because they move things deep within us.  And for that reason they have to be used carefully, and thoughtfully.

I don’t advocate censorship.  The freedom to tell stories is paramount.  But I am happy to exercise my right to walk away when I feel that risks taken in that storytelling have not been borne out by the final result.

The season premiere of The Walking Dead was a callous manipulation of the true emotional lives of viewers.  It was nasty and relentless and caused unnecessary pain, a betrayal of the investment every viewer had made in it.  And that, for me, was where it ended.

The ‘Elite’ Should Speak Out

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The debate rolls on.  Is the problem with Donald Trump that he’s a pretty terrible person, or is the problem not about Donald Trump at all – that there’s actually something rotten at the heart of America that he’s bringing out of the shadows?

Most of the attacks throughout this long election campaign have been directed at the candidate and not at the source of the unpleasant views to which he gives a face, the very root of his support.  Critics steer clear of making a fundamental challenge for a variety of reasons, but a big part is guilt, middle-class guilt (if you’re in the UK), the guilt of those who are doing okay in the world.

They’ve been branded the ‘elite’ and told they don’t have a right to speak out because they’re not poor and they’ve not been dealt a tough hand in the game of life so they don’t understand the hard choices that shape this ‘authentic voice’ of the downtrodden. And because the privileged – the university-educated, doing okay – tend to care about these things, and honestly feel a little guilty at their privilege, they go along with this argument.

Yet the attack is not directed at an ‘elite’ which is simply rich – in fact, it’s often people who are very well off who are using ‘elite’ as a pejorative.  No, ‘elite’ in this context means better educated, and the sub-text is: don’t come here with your facts, statistics and evidence – they might stop me voicing my deeply-held prejudices.

But there’s a warning here from the UK.

The attack on the educated was a fundamental part of the Brexit campaign by the Leave team who didn’t want facts getting in the way of their, shall we say, ’emotional’ appeals.  But in light of their victory, that worldview has now become mainstream and it’s being used to unleash a great deal of nastiness – racism, violent attacks, suppression of facts and those who speak out in opposition to their agenda.

Racist attacks on citizens have soared since Brexit, hundreds reported all over the country, mostly in white working class communities.  The Hard Right is now fighting hard to deny this as a myth, one started by those who wanted to stay in the EU, much like some of those shadowy people behind Trump claim many of the factual attacks on the candidate and his views are also myths.  “Mostly debunked.”

Trump has unleashed the same wave of unpleasantness in America, coming from a similar source, and it’s not going to go away when he does.

You can’t change things by example.  America elects a black president and racism increases.  Elect a female president and the problems women face are likely to be exacerbated too.  Because the unpleasantness that lies behind this is emotional and deeply-felt.

Some things are open to debate, and some things are just wrong.  Tolerance should only go so far.  Ignorance is not an excuse, and challenges need to be made.  If they don’t, oft-repeated views stop being beyond the pale.  They just become normal.

William Poundstone, the author of Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy To Look Up, ran many surveys and interviewed a huge number of people.  One dilemma he posed was: would you throw your pet off a cliff for a $1 million?

About 7% of people said yes.  But the percentage was double that amount among the poorly educated.  Poundstone said, in an article in The Observer, that his findings showed, “the less informed are either greedier or less kind to animals.”  But it didn’t end there.  Those who didn’t know the name of their elected representative were more likely to say it was okay for businesses to post fake online reviews under fake names.  Those who can’t answer easy questions about dinosaurs have a poor grounding in science and can’t form good opinions about, say, vaccinations, even with Google to help them.

Poundstone says, “Knowledge is not wisdom, but it’s a pre-requisite for wisdom.”

If people aren’t told that they’re wrong, if they’re not pushed back at every turn, those unpleasant ideas take root and flourish.  The danger for the ‘elite’ is that by allowing themselves to be silenced, they will allow a worldview that they long thought defeated to become mainstream.

Being educated is not wrong, it’s a boon to society, and with it comes a responsibility that it needs to be used, in public, against the accusations of ‘talking down’, to create a society we can all be proud of.

The Donald Trump Problem

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A Wall Street Journal poll published yesterday (Sunday) revealed that more than half of American voters don’t care if their president is a sexual abuser.

That finding sent a shiver through the people of Western Europe.  You could feel the sense of bewilderment rolling out across social media, in texts and emails.  How could this possibly be?

We’ve long been told that Trump is the response to globalisation, disruption and industrial decline, a champion of people who are ill-equipped to deal with the 21st century.  This has become something of a global narrative – explaining the Brexit vote, the rise of Marine le Pen and the National Front in France and more.

But 53% of US voters believing allegations of Trump’s long-standing sexually predatory and abusive treatment of women shouldn’t rule him out of being the leader of the free world is not anger about lost jobs.  It’s not a response to declining prospects or the inchoate rage of the Left Behind.

This was a mirror held up to the face of America and it showed something particularly ugly.

The problem with Donald Trump is not Donald Trump.

Except there may be a different way of seeing it.

While the allegations against Trump have moved some voters into the Clinton column, there’s a hard core that seem unshakeable in their support, however horrendous the revelations levelled against the businessman-turned-politician.  The usual response is a kind of gallows humour and multiplying memes of what terrible thing Trump would have to say or do to get these people to flee, finally.

They never will.

The truth is, to them, Trump is not a man, he’s a symbol, and that makes him bulletproof.  Any allegation can be levelled at him and they will all be discounted because those allegations are about Trump the man, which is an irrelevance.  Trump the symbol of all that is wrong with someone’s life will always shine through, because symbols cannot be degraded.  They’re lodged in the unconscious mind, the secret language we all speak yet don’t realise that we do, where one symbol can contain behind it a library of reasons, thoughts, feelings, all tangled up.

The symbolic voter may not be a new phenomenon, but thanks to the Communication Age which has linked up so many disparate tribes, that bloc has now become connected, and organised.

This is not peculiar to Trump, or to America.

All the Remain campaigners who thought the public would swing against a Brexit vote once they were faced with the stark facts of the economic fallout were deluded.  They were fighting a completely different referendum from the people they were trying to convince.  The Leave side got it.  They just made stuff up to knock off a few Remain voters at the margins, knowing their core support came from symbolic voters who were not being engaged, even slightly, by the other side.

These people were wholly buying into the Liberation Myth, the idea that Brexit would result in a new-found freedom.  On the surface, this meant simply an escape from what was perceived as suffocating European laws.  But when you hear these Brexit voters speak about their decision – and there are many accounts online, not just this one – you realise it wasn’t about Europe at all.  Many were voting for a symbolic freedom that would reach down through all aspects of their lives, lifting them out of a stultifying job, an oppressive relationship, the poverty trap, wherever they felt constrained or beaten down.

As with many psychological drives, the people who succumb to them are sometimes just as bewildered by what they’ve done as the people who vote with their heads.

You can see the same response from some supporters of the UK Independence Party, which has gone from strength to strength despite mockery of its leaders and allegations of racism and sexism and recently a fistfight among its elected representatives which left one of them in hospital.

And with supporters of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who has proven so immune to attacks that some have branded his followers a cult.  Corbyn remains a prime draw for the symbolic voter, because, to many, he’s a tabula rasa.  His policies are so few and so high-level it’s possible for many to project all their hard-held beliefs into that void.

Symbolic voters break down into two groups: the victims, the kind of people who use the word ‘gatekeepers’ or engage with a whole range of conspiracy theories – they’ve tried hard but things aren’t working out for them, and because they know they’ve tried hard their failure can only be the fault of someone else/the system; and utopians, for whom it’s most important to imagine a better world at the highest level possible before delving down into the nitty gritty of how to get there.  Both are immune to facts, statistics, evidence, for different reasons, and both attach their political beliefs to symbolic figures.

These are usually gut people, not head people.  There’s no value judgment in that statement.  Psychology shows us people divide quite clearly along these lines (these aren’t binary choices – it’s a spectrum like most psychological states, but we’re looking at the fringes here).  Their response to a piece like this would be emotional – anger, contempt – not a reasoned argument.

Symbols are important – they speak louder than anything.  And as Brexit shows, they can crush puny facts and policies.  If their political opponents want to win, they need to engage the symbolic aspect rather than simply throwing more mud, or making more reasoned arguments, and that needs a good deal of lateral thinking.

Third World War: Two Steps Closer

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Later today (Saturday) talks will take place in Switzerland between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The aim: to broker another ceasefire in Syria. Kerry has already said he doesn’t expect any positive results.

Why?  US-Russia relations have not been so poor since the Cold War, and they’re getting worse by the day, with potentially terrible results.  It’s easy to get distracted by all the other troubling events unfolding domestically and abroad – as many people have pointed out, there’s just too much “news” in 2016 (and Francis Fukuyama is probably getting sick of all the ribbing for his ‘end of history’ quote back in the 90s, rightly or wrongly) – but this should be demanding everyone’s attention.

Last night (Oct 14), NBC discovered the CIA is preparing an unprecedented cyber strike against Russia, one designed to “harass and embarrass” the Kremlin leadership. Because this is all keystrokes and screens, many dismiss this as not true warfare, or at the very least one that will not result in any deaths. That’s misjudging both the psychological state of Putin and his precarious position as the leader of a Mafia State where the rule of law is tenuous for people at the top and where the bullet beats the ballot.

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Meanwhile, here in London, at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been talking up the likelihood of UK-US military action in Syria” “We can’t just see Aleppo pulverised…  We have to do something.  Whether that means we can get a coalition together for more kinetic action now I cannot prophesy, but certainly what most people want to see is a new set of options.”

This could only result in direct confrontation with Russia, which, under Putin, has wagered everything in support of Syria’s desperate President Assad.  At the moment, this might be considered sabre-rattling, to warm the blood in advance of today’s Swiss talks.  But, again, the psychology, the Mafia State..  Backing down is not an option for Putin.

There’s a growing sense that NATO sees Syria as critical.  If Putin isn’t stopped now, he will keep going – he will *have* to keep going to appease domestic critics concerned with a tanking economy.  But the West also senses that he’s vulnerable, and there’s a belief that the hard men around him might choose to act against the leader rather than risk a devastating confrontation with an unpredictable outcome.

Or not.

One thing’s for sure: when everything is so finely balanced on the brink of war, in the coming months and years, the West is going to need leaders that are a safe pair of hands.

You Won’t Get That Here

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So-called expert advice to bloggers says stick to one subject so readers always know what they’re getting.

Yeah. ^^ ^^

Here, expect #writing #science #weird #politics #tech #mythology #psychology #books #music #economics #thefuture #thepast #philosophy #films #folklore #TV #internationalrelations and a whole host of other things.

I’m less interested in writing this as a way to promote my work, than I am in using it to pursue intellectual curiosity.  Because here, in the 21st century, I think we’ve finally reached the point where we accept that everything is connected, yes?  Why write about one thing when it’s being affected significantly by matters off your narrow agenda?

Now I’ve delivered my latest MS to editor and agent, I’ll be updating this site regularly, perhaps every other day.  Not everything will be to your taste, but hopefully a regular reader will often find something that raises questions, inspires or intrigues.

The basic theme, then, is: the inside of my head.

And feel free to give me your feedback in the comments, or suggest subjects that you’d like tackled.  All modern media is a conversation, after all.

 

 

Politics, Events And The Writer’s Nightmare

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The EU Referendum seems to have unleashed some kind of collective madness in the UK.

I’ve been planning to write about the fallout for a few days. But every time I sit down, the situation changes. By the day, by the hour, sometimes even every five minutes.

Leave voters’ buyers remorse. Will-they-won’t-they trigger Article 50 and start the uncoupling process. The devastating racist attacks on communities across the UK. The implosion of the Labour Party. The Conservative leadership campaign. Michael Gove’s Shakespearean act of treachery. Boris Johnson’s subsequent decision not to stand as leader, the thing he’s been working towards all his life and which he blew up the country to achieve. Lib Dem leader Tim Farron’s hint that a new centrist party could be formed with Labour moderates.

There doesn’t seem to be an end to it.

No point putting finger to keyboard and then it all being obsolete the second I press publish.

This may well be one of Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping points – everything always stays the same until the moment everything changes. We’ve seen it happen in business and international affairs and the media. It’s all part of that 21st Century disruption.

This is a headache if you’re writing fiction. You want your work to resonate with the world around you. But the book publishing schedule – or the TV production schedule – entails a year, sometimes two, between writing and publication. When the world is as it is at the moment, the chances are some of what you do is already out of date by the time the book hits the shelves. That diminishes its power.

My colleagues writing SF have been wrestling with the rapid changes in technology for a while (and my US editor remarked that one of my books was three waves of tech out of date between UK publication and US). But I certainly wouldn’t like to be a commenter for the news print media.

*rips up fifth column of the day*

It’s exhausting. I want a break. I want all of us to start moving forward again instead of thrashing around in the whirlpool.

Maybe tomorrow.

Writing By Example: The Silence Of The Lambs

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If you want to be a writer, take a look at Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs.  Read it.  Read it another ten times, tear it apart, analyse it, and then read it again.  The book remains a masterpiece of genre writing, and it’s one I return to time and again.

If you’d rather focus your study, zoom in on just two chapters: the first two encounters between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter.  These capture everything that Harris is doing with this book, the deep themes, the sub-text.  The writing is sparse.  Descriptions are kept to a minimum, and when they do come, they seem lush by comparison.  Three lines tell you all you ever need to know about Lecter. Most of the writing here is dialogue, and dialogue without tags. But in that speech, you not only hear the distinctive voices of the two characters, you also understand their psychology, their motivations, their lives. From these two chapters, you could write your own story of Starling and Lecter because you understand them fully.

The Silence of the Lambs is Harris’ best book by far.  (I have a slowly-forming theory about The Power of the Third Book – see also, Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl. The first is the adrenaline rush. The second is refinement. The third is where everything learned is put into effect. Writers hate to repeat themselves so they change it all up for the fourth and get it all wrong again.)

The true power of this novel comes when you understand that a vast amount of the story exists away from the page, between the lines, in the motivations of the characters. The reader deciphers it unconsciously, and consciously with a little effort. That shows a writer who is the master of his work.

The campaign between FBI boss Jack Crawford and Lecter, personal, multi-layered, cruelly manipulative, is all implicit. The novel is deeply about psychology and psychoanalysis – that is clear on any surface reading. But that is also stitched into the hidden story. What is Lecter *really* doing with Starling?

Most importantly, Harris illustrates a powerful rule for writing: complex, not complicated. (Complicated is one line that ties itself in knots to seem interesting. Complex is layers set upon each other, every one influencing the rest.) The plot is simple, but the effect is powerful and haunting, even on multiple readings.