Closing Time

When I started this journey into organised content, there would often be weeks where half (or more) of what was planned simply never came to fruition. Often it would be apathy that won the day, or I’d simply not find the ability within me to do on Thursday what had been so brilliant to consider on Sunday. Now, I refuse to finish a weekday evening without at least 60% of the scheduled content complete. That means that until this post is finished, I’m not off the clock. Suddenly, routine and planning have become as important as the content itself. This is because of a promise I made before my Patreon started.

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I’ve struggled over the years with consistency and commitment. Of course, the only person who loses out ultimately from the shortcomings is me, but when I started asking people to pay me to work, that wasn’t good enough. I have a responsibility if individuals turn up and hand over cash to be not only consistent but culpable. That meant a distinct re-assessment of priority sets, and the ability to define tasks in a framework I was capable not only of hitting but exceeding. It has helped enormously that this has also happened on the leisure side of my life: cycling and weightlifting are both contributing to an increase in mental capacity.

There are other people who have helped me too, and their capacity to fit together and unlock parts of my subconscious has been almost poetic in combination. They say sometimes you don’t notice the influences in your life, but I’m grateful and happy to be able not only to spot those individuals but have them as examples to aspire to. I also have to credit a change in listening habits for the renaissance in creativity. Spotify is proving surprisingly fruitful and amazing by turns as a means to foster the expansion of my mind. I’m reading again, and have a selection of items that I’m looking forward to on Netflix.

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It’s not all perfect, however, but when the storms come (as is unavoidable) they have become a great deal easier to weather than was ever previously the case. That’s not just because of mental and physical fortitude either. It’s a complex balance of so many things, which makes me both pleased and comforted that when it really mattered, and I needed to step up to the task, it happened. The next step, of course, is to move up into a new space and make the most of the opportunities that exist within it. That’s the plan for the rest of February, and I’m already rolling.

I’ll see you bright and early on Monday when we start again. Enjoy the weekend’s scheduled poetry.

Book of the Month :: Consider the Future

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If you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?

It is 1978, a year after Star Wars, and I am listening on a cold March night on an ancient transistor radio to the first episode of a new Radio 4 series entitled ‘The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ That weekend, determined to find something new to read, I will head to our local library and pluck up the courage to ask for some stories the Librarian thinks would be enjoyable. As an extremely impressionable eleven and a bit year old, I hope for something exhilarating and am not disappointed. The middle aged woman returns with two books of John Wyndham’s short stories: The Seeds of Time and Consider Her Ways. Without the latter, on considered reflection, I would not have begun to question the environment around me.

The narrative is established in an almost perfect storm of carefully crafted, linear exposition: a young woman awakes after having what is, in effect, an out of body experience. It soon becomes apparent that this world is completely out of kilter with what both audience and narrator know to be correct: even body is not her own but that of Orchis, massively obese ‘Mother’ whose sole reason for existence is to manufacture babies. In this state our protagonist discovers that life, such as it is, involves simply eating and reproducing. The other women, in a similar state around her, are happy to do this and remain unable both to read and write.

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Finally, after a fall, the reality of her true existence becomes apparent: Jane Waterleigh volunteered as a test subject for a new, synthesised drug which has provided the ability to exist out of body allowing travel through time. Showing a doctor she can write and that knowledge as a physician in another life sets her apart from the other illiterate Mothers, the biggest revelation emerges by accident: this society is bereft of men. The matriarchal society was built from the ashes of Jane’s own past, construction inspired by, of all things, a quote from the Bible:

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.
[Proverbs 6:6]

The profound and powerful persuasiveness of Wyndham’s first person narrative hooked me immediately. Previous science fiction novels I had read were so very obviously written with women in subservient, secondary roles. Even the HitchHiker’s Guide (which is still also loved after all these years) had two male protagonists: however funny the script was, there was no female heroine to identify with. Written from an almost totally female perspective, both heard and identified as relatable came as a breath of welcome fresh air which promoted unexpected excitement.

It wasn’t just voices and roles however that make Consider Her Ways so compelling: the unfolding horror Jane feels as it becomes apparent the entire fabric of society around her has altered to mimic an ant colony. From the three-foot-high miniature human Servitors to the muscle-bound and servile Workers (whom Jane considers as Amazons) everything could yet be a nightmare or some kind of hallucination. Only when she is on her way to have the truth explained is there a hint of a past only she can remember:

‘Once, we crossed a cutting. Looking down from the bridge I thought at first that we were over the dried bed of a canal, but then I noticed a post leaning at a crazy angle amongst the grass and weeds: most of its attachments had fallen off, but there were enough left to identify it as a railway signal.’

That image has stuck with me for decades, and is a perfect example of how using the familiar to highlight radical change is so effective. It is no different from Charlton Heston discovering a buried Statue of Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes movie, a ‘reveal’ which has now become standard in apocalyptic fiction. When Jane is taken to meet historian Laura the real truth of the matter becomes apparent: an experiment in the past to eradicate brown rats produced unexpected and fatal consequences, effectively eliminating the male population. This conceit ironically was very close to how Hollywood chose to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise decades after it began.

In order to save humanity, the surviving women in Wyndham’s alternate future picked the ant ‘model’ as that which would most simply preserve their status quo, allowing a realistic chance of survival. It is in the conversations between Jane and Laura that subverts science fiction into the realms of radical feminism: to keep the species alive, a decision was taken not to re-introduce men, even when that option became possible.

As Jane argues that without two sexes, there can be no true love, passion or humanity, Laura presents a version of history where, across the centuries, women have simply been at the beck and call of men, subjugated in the 19th and 20th Centuries by the notion of ‘Romanticism:’ no value to their existence without men to compete for, and easily relegated to the role of second class citizens. The elimination of man from the equation allowed a better version of love and freedom, but required a sacrifice to maintain: hence the caste system was born. The babies of Mothers are graded and then assigned to the most appropriate ‘career’: nobody is unhappy, with each group more than willing to play their part for the advancement of the greater good.

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As an exercise in post-apocalyptic science fiction, it is these exchanges that are the most effective: having the opportunity to argue the merits of current society against what could happen were men to be removed makes for some beautiful exchanges, which even now I can recall without the need for book as reference: ‘it was sex, civilised into romantic love, that made the world go round – and you believed them.’ The truth that kept these women alive without men was power, the same power men had used to subjugate them for centuries.

However, as a young girl, as yet really unaware of the place I’d take as a woman in later life, this portion of the book was close to a revelation. Being presented with both sides of the argument, elegantly and persuasively written, was the last thing I’d expected from a story that was supposed to be about a terrible future for mankind. Although nothing within these pages could really be considered as close to a treatise, the concepts were insightful. In my case at least, science fiction made me think, but not in a fanciful or fictional manner.

However, the master stroke comes in the last few pages: told her ‘memories’ of the past would be removed by hypnosis, Jane asks for a repeat dosage of chuinjuatin (drug that caused her to arrive in the future) in the hope she will return to her body. Once successful, she takes it upon herself to track down the doctor whose experimentation caused the disaster. A better example of the predestination paradox (or causal loop) you are not likely to find, and the ambiguity of the ending is hugely satisfying.

Science fiction’s greatest strength is the ability to present an alternative to the established order, and reminds us that, if we will allow it, everyone can become a time traveller. When I look back at my younger self and wonder how much may have been different had there been more novels with strong female protagonists, I understand the significance of films such as the current series of Star Wars and Wonder Woman for a younger audience. Without these key fictional inspirations, which inside we can imagine without restriction, there is no place to examine and dissect key ideas and sensations unique to our own psyches.

Occasionally one comes across a narrative so perfect that you never forget it, and for me this story is perhaps the best example of how to write: build tension slowly to exactly the right point before dropping a bombshell on your reader. I wanted to write stories as beautifully constructed as this (and still do.) In that regard I owe Wyndham a great debt, but not as much as the understanding that it does not matter what sex you are when writing. If the story engages and compels, you can pretend to be whatever you want and it doesn’t matter.

We will look at the rest of the stories in the anthology next week, but for now I would urge this tale be read once, complete, even knowing the outcome. The language used remains very much the product of the 1950’s but the ideas and concepts within have a relevance that, in a world where sperm counts are dropping and sea levels rising, remains both applicable and challenging. Depending on who you believe, an apocalyptic event could be around the next corner… is a future without men really a feminist fantasy, or could we yet come to the point where procreation becomes irrelevant.

More importantly: if you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?

Life on Planet Groove

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This week, I have finally been granted the free space and time to do more here than just repost poetry. In part that’s a lot to do with being able to organize myself to a reasonable standard, but it is more about how I’m adjusting to a life where games are no longer a priority. Normally, in a quiet period I would have fired up the UI and caught up: today, I need to write. It is amazing how much time gets sucked up by the desire to play, especially when content is piled on you to the point where it becomes impossible to keep up. Freeing myself from that is having unexpected and brilliant consequences.

In the last month, I’ve produced some of the best work I’ve ever written. I know that might sound like hyperbole, but deep down I know it to be true: aware that by freeing brain from the tyranny of needing to feel a part of something I already belong to, everything just gets easier. There’s another factor at play too: words are doing strange things to the very fabric of my mind. It’s not me getting all sci-fi on your arses, don’t worry. By spending every day thinking about poetry, it becomes easier. Rhymes slip with increasing ease from the fingers, the structure of pieces literally condenses in front of my eyes. I can tell what’s bad and good without the need to stress too much about content.

It is almost as if I am changing into a better writer simply by every word that’s written.

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The problem, of course, is that pretty much everybody else judges what constitutes success by criteria that involve you making money for what you do. It doesn’t matter how good I think I am, the test comes when other people are involved. So far, at least if the Patreon rewards are an indicator, I am at least doing something right. However, that only works to a point: I didn’t want to ask people to sponsor my blogging, because I wasn’t sure where it is all going to go to begin with. However, as of next week, my gaming site becomes the #3 priority behind the personal site and this one. Yesterday, for the first time in seven years, I got more hits on the other two than I did for pixel-related observation, and I won’t lie. I was REALLY happy.

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I used to really enjoy writing about Warcraft, I won’t lie. Now I’ve made a promise only to do so when I have something relevant to say or (as is the case currently) I have a Twitter Poll running. The toxic nature of a section of players won’t be going away any time soon, however many tools are put in place to prevent it. More importantly however the unstoppable juggernaut of esports simply has no appeal at all. If I have a choice to sit down I’d rather watch a film, TV show or read a book. I listen to nearly all conventional sports and don’t watch them, which allows me to write and ‘spectate’ simultaneously. Listening to esports may as well be a foreign language to me. I realise how many people are excited by this future, but as I would rather be exercising than sitting watching other people play computer games?

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I thought today it was worth writing all this down, for no other reason than it forms a bigger picture around why everything is shifting the way it is. I, like many other people in my Social media sphere love games, yet have decreasing amounts of time to spend playing them. Hanging around with people who do is, like it or not, a great way to still feel part of a community albeit vicariously. I’ll need to be careful in future how and what I respond to (leant that lesson now, not doing that again) but I hope I’ll still be welcome to give stuff away and hang about. There are however absolutely no illusions as to my desires. I can post motivational quotes as a way to use my extensive screenshot collection. I can try and make people think. Most importantly, as pretty much all of my friends still play, I can enjoy them doing just that, even if I don’t do so myself.

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One particular critic continues to enjoy calling me a fraud. They will be reading this post right now, and to them I’ll say what I’ve said since the first time they tried to chase me away from their game that I’ve devalued with my work. People like you are the reason I keep going. Those who think that threats, anger and their own narrow mindedness will eventually win and people like me will leave… well, nope, still not happening. My next plan, all things being equal, is to work towards becoming Twitter verified and when that happens, I have no doubt nothing at all will change. The bad people don’t go away, you cannot just click fingers and remove all sources of grief from your existence.

I like what is happening here, and long may it continue.