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To Nano or Not?

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and I still haven’t quite decided whether to throw myself into it this year or not. I’ve taken part several times in previous years, but never completed the 50,000 words. And this year I still have the novel that I’ve been working on intermittently for about four years, that I’d like to finish off.

Maybe it would be better, and more in the Nano spirit, to start something new. But I think if I were to do that, I’d never finish this one, and it would sit there forever, haunting me. Maybe taunting me too, who knows.

I should have a better chance of getting the word count up this year, as I have a longer commute, and I usually get a seat at or near the start of the longest part (Dalston Junction to West Croydon, if you’re interested). So it should be entirely possible to get two free blocks of writing time each weekday. But I have found it to be strangely offputting to write in that environment, when there’s a person sitting on either side of me.

Sure, they’re probably not in the least interested in what I’ve got going on, but as Stephen King says in On Writing, you’ve got to write the first draft with the door closed.

Still, I have recently been looking at the novel again, and I think I’ve worked out how to end it. That has always been the problem for me: I don’t do a detailed plot, but I need to know how a story’s going to end if I’m going to have any chance of finishing it. If I just start writing with only an idea, maybe a setting and some characters, I tend to meander around all over the place and never get anywhere. Or at least, not to a sensible end.

I don’t have to know much about the route, but I need to know the destination, in other words. So as I now know the destination — or at least have a much clearer idea of it — I think it’s time to take one last run at this thing.

But this is me declaring that I’m throwing my hat in the Wrimo ring. I’ve signed up, and even given it a working title1 — by raiding that fount of quotes, The Tempest.

  1. Another problem has been and remains that I don’t have a title for it. Why are titles so hard? 

Mixed feelings: somebody dies; the reaction makes you check out their work; you find you’ve been missing something great. You’ve got a great new band to explore. But it’s like coming in at the end of a movie.

And the guy is dead. (He was my age.)

The Tragically Hip. Very good.

On Blade Runner 2049

Spoilers ahead, obviously. Although I don’t go into much detail.

We saw it in the Rio in Dalston, because all the Hackney Picturehouse showings were full (or at least just had a couple of separated seats left). Which makes me surprised to read these stories about it not doing very well on opening weekend. And weirdly, from the balcony. I don’t know when I was last in a cinema with a balcony. I mean, the Rio, obviously, though probably not since Harry Potter 8; but I hadn’t been in the balcony before, and I don’t think I even realised that it had one.

But to the film of the moment. I tried to lower my expectations, I really did. But I’d read that Guardian review, which was so unbelievably glowing. I listened to Mitch Benn hoping they wouldn’t fuck it up and believed that they hadn’t.


OK, they haven’t fucked it up. But I’m going to have to break ranks with all the legions of newspaper reviewers who love it to death & back (honestly, I can hardly find a bad, or even a mixed, review), and nearly everyone else.

Because I didn’t enjoy it all that much. I spent a lot of the time (of which there is a lot) saying, “What the fuck is going on here? Why did they do that?” The former is fine, as long as it becomes clear over time, which it generally did. The latter less so: understanding characters’ motivations is fundamental to understanding and enjoying a work of fiction.

But much worse than those: I spent some of the time bored.

The main reason for that is that it’s paced like an 80s movie. Which is to say, much more slowly than we are used to today.

I should have expected that, I suppose. The original Blade Runner moves slowly even by 80s standards. That’s part of its visual and storytelling style. So it’s reasonable that a sequel, even one thirty years later, should follow suit. But they could have picked the pace up a bit.

The reviews all describe it as “thought-provoking” or similar, and it’s true that the questions of what it means to be human or to be artificial are in there. But to my mind there’s not enough of that. Which in a way is linked to another problem: world-building.

As before the world is very visually striking. What we have is the world of Blade Runner with thirty years of technological advancements. Like the film, the pace of advancement has been slow, but I suppose that’s not surprising, given how damaged the world is.

But slowly or quickly, technology advances in parallel with a conversation about that technology. What’s missing here is any in-world debate about the legal and ethical status of replicants. Certainly there’s a nod to the idea that the casual use of “skin-job” is insulting and shouldn’t be used. But it never seemed that insulting anyway — indeed I think it’s only the voiceover version of the original that tells us it is an insult. Deckard likens it to the n-word. (He does so using that word, which, rightly, would not happen today.)

In a more realistic world there would be a debate about replicants. There would be rights groups campaigning against using them as slaves, and even for them to be given full citizenship status. And from others there would be discrimination against them, abuse of them. That could all be going on in the background of this society — and the debate is not what the film is about — but I think a small acknowledgement that the debate existed would at least hint at a richer society.

That all applies to the original too, of course, but now it’s much more common for the replicants to be living among humans on Earth, so the conversation would be that much more active.

And speaking of that commonality of the replicants on Earth, one question you might ask is, are there any humans actually left on Earth? Because only two characters appear to be unambiguously human.

One is K’s boss in the LAPD, Lt Joshi, who could unknowingly be a replicant, though nothing suggests that. The other, Ana Stelline, who creates the memories that are implanted in replicants. She lives in isolation because of sensitivity to the environment, and the implication is that only a human can provide the memories. But since not all of the memories are actually hers, all that needs is gift for imaginative imagery. And, now that we know that replicants are fully-biological beings who can reproduce (whether only with each other or also with humans is unknown), then anything is possible.

The situation appears to be that anyone with the money and without any disqualifying problem has left Earth. “A new life awaits you in the offworld colonies,” after all. I always suspected that the colonies would consist of grinding hardship based on subsistence farming, but I suppose the idea is you have replicant slaves to do the work.

The Earth that we see is incredibly empty. The original’s LA streets were packed with people, but now it seems sparsely populated at best. Empty highways — because of course nobody’s driving cars anymore. But the air is empty too. Mostly there’s only ever one car flying at a time. All those giant buildings might be filled with people, but you don’t get any sense of them being there.

San Diego is a literal dump, and Las Vegas a nuclear wasteland. Apart from the still-standing casino hotel, of course. A million bottles of whisky and you choose Johnnie Walker Black Label? Come on. (That brand is owned by Diageo, though, which is the first of the big neon advertising signs you see.)

I don’t know, I wonder if it was just my expectation of something more striking, more startling. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t hate it, or even dislike it. I was just disappointed by it. Yet I think I want to see it again.

I loved the music, by the way, though it was perhaps a bit overwhelming in places.

And as a last thought: I still see people talking about the replicants being ‘robots’ or ‘androids.’ If it wasn’t clear from the first film, where they bled what seemed to be blood, it is powerfully obvious now: there are no robots in these films. The replicants are fully biological. They are probably more like clones, genetically engineered for enhanced strength and stamina.

The original book had androids (the clue was in the title); but not these films.

Faces and Feeds

I think I might have to develop an app for reading Facebook the way I think it should work.

There was an article doing the rounds the other week about how “our minds can be hijacked,” which was all about how terrible social networking is for us. I skimmed part of it, but got annoyed when it seemed to be about rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs deciding to go “off-grid.” That’s all very well for them, but most of us have to make a living.

More pertinently, since the main target for the attack was Facebook, it annoyed me because I use Facebook to keep in touch with people that I might otherwise not. For that, it can be very good.

And yet… it struck a chord with, me to some degree. I realised that Facebook has increasingly become more of a time sink than a pleasure. Not that I spend vast amounts of time on it each day, but when I do open it up, I often end up spending longer than I’d have wanted to. And not reading updates from friends and family, but following links to articles and quizzes and nonsense, most of which I wish I hadn’t bothered with.

By comparison, a similar length of time spent in my feed reader lets me read blog pieces by people I actively want to hear from, and which I’m generally glad I’ve read.

But they mostly aren’t friends and family.

And then there’s the fact that the Facebook algorithm is tuned to show me what it thinks I should see, not what I want to see. What I want to see is all the updates from my friends, in reverse-chronological order. And that’s all. But there’s no guarantee that it will show me everything everyone posts, and the order is close to random at times.

One way to work round this is to visit people’s individual Facebook pages. You could see all your the posts by all your friends by going to each of their profiles in turn. But that would mean you’d have to keep track of all that: remember who you visited and when, and somehow manage the list of people.

Keeping track of things is what computers are good at. The software should be doing that for us.

So I’m thinking that what I want is an app that will do that for me: that will keep a list of my Facebook friends, and show me all their posts (which of course is what Facebook used to do).

As far as I know, no such app exists. This seems strange and unlikely, but I don’t think Facebook make a public API available for third-party clients, so such an app would have to work by scraping the web pages, which is neither good practice nor much fun.

Of course, what this means is effectively turning Facebook back into a set of RSS feeds — or now, especially as I have some experience with them, a set of JSON Feed feeds. Which would then be usable in all sorts of other places.

Web scraping may be bad and painful; still, I think I want to write this thing. Watch this space.