This Power Might Not Last

During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.

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Making Babies by Laurie Penny

‘Making Babies’ is a piece of original fiction by the writer, journalist, and all around good egg Laurie Penny. It is available for free here. It is quite a short read, so I recommend giving it a look before I spoil it horribly for you. It concerns the relationship of Annie and Simon, a (presumably)* affluent couple raising a child together & confronting (or being confronted by) the anguishes of new parenthood. Except it is a science fictional story, so it also deals with what makes a human, what constitutes humanity & our consideration of acceptable human-ness through the lens of an android child.

Penny’s style superbly alights on familiar ideas to locate us in the grief and anguish of the characters, in few words expressing a compelling depth of emotion:

“He flashed her a smile, that wide corn-fed American smile with the two dimples, one on his cheek and one on his chin, that she always loved. Had loved. Stillloved.”

There is a wonderful sense of mourning and loss that the brief, italicized sentences express there. This excellent metaphor that locates the sensibility of the story in the science fictional:

“All the light and joy and energy draining out of life like a plug had been pulled somewhere deep inside, leaving you scrabbling to find the stopper before every last drop of you poured away.”

That people are more like machines, or machines more like people than are readily apparent. This blurred line is the crux of the story as embodied in the synthetic baby Tommy. Tommy was constructed by Annie as she does not (for the above quoted section) want to go through a biological pregnancy.

On my first read-through of this short story, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. That’s not true; it left me flat. I thought it was excellently written but bereft, or at least avoidant of any conflict.  The surface issue is that Simon has been inattentive and allowed Tommy to be damaged. Simon and Annie are perhaps not precisely happy. In Simon’s case, this might be because he is feeling redundant. Annie is a perfectionist “Nothing was ever quite good enough” and Simon cannot get the coffee right, he is a “disappointment.” If a reader has familiarity with Penny’s political writings, this might seem to be the angle to the story: Penny has written (with exceptional compassion) about the difficulty and estrangement of young men in the late-capitalist world undergoing a crisis of masculinity. In Simon’s case, he is not an adequate provider (his gifts are improved), he is not the practically proficient one (Annie is a robotics engineer), and even their child has “nothing of [him]” in it. Annie rebuts this by demanding Simon look at Tommy, see the things she made in Tommy to resemble Simon, yet this is undermined in the text as Tommy is Annie’s “greatest project.” This could be the crux of the conflict, exploring familiar ground for Penny, and at first I took it to be, and was a little disappointed. After all, their differences are resolved (or glossed over?) rather rapidly when Tommy says ‘Dada.’ My initial response wasn’t negative – Penny’s prose is really rather good and her exploration of the characters well realised – just that I read it as a fictional exploration of her politics. I happened to agree, but it didn’t grab me.

Then I considered the final moments with Tommy, where Annie pushes a “small, hidden switch” to deactivate Tommy and prevent him from crying and distracting her and Simon from the urgent business of fucking, and looked at the whole piece as a synchronous character study of Tommy and Annie, rather than expecting a conventional narrative arc (rising tension and all that). Much as with Simon just ‘forgetting’ Tommy on top of the car, in cutting off the power, Annie transforms Tommy from surrogate child in to appliance. Even if she does love Tommy, it is difficult to tell if it not just the love of an engineer for her work – but is that then grounds for saying it is not love? It evoked in me that almost Sevinian sensation of cognitive estrangement, that feeling of almost looking at the back of my own head. The moment when Annie deactivates Tommy reminded me of the very end of Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sleep?” where a tired Deckard thinks he may have found a genuine, living frog, only for it to be revealed to be a very convincing synthetic, in exactly the same manner as Tommy is – a cleverly concealed switch. Tommy takes on an uncomfortable position from this point: He is like a real child in that he personifies the commitment between Annie and Simon, and at the same time remains a disposable prop** to them.

This intertextual connectivity enriched my appreciation of Making Babies; the story is aware that it exists in a continuum of science fiction, and embraces that. Most obviously, any story about the creation of artificial life evokes the core narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Making Babies takes this head on: just as Frankenstein creates his monster to overcome death, so does Annie. Whereas Frankenstein nominally believes his work to be selfless but is ultimately selfish, Annie creates Tommy from motivations that are rooted in her own history and fears, her mother’s sickness*** and fears of the same, the synthetic baby becomes something ultimately more selfless and shared than the monster.

Through this science fictional prism, Penny has allowed us to consider how our relationship to abstracted things manifests as our relationship to one another, and how potentially disposable one or the other is. Making Babies is a whip-smart short piece of fiction that continues the dialogue that good science fiction has about how technology and our relationship to it alters and reflects our relationships with one another.

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* I assume this purely on the basis of the gift given to Annie by Simon (a custom coffee maker) and that they have the time and resources to construct an android child, and no mention is given of particularly financial difficulties. It’s a blank slate, in that sense, of the kind I primarily associate with fiction located in a middle-class idiom. I could be wrong.

** I’m relatively confident in this position. The story switches between the perspective of Simon and Annie with some fluidity, but we never experience anything from within Tommy’s awareness, which implies he is not aware. There could be some deeper comment on when a child becomes a human here, but I’m going to take it as not – though that does make both parent’s disregard (even more) horrible!

*** There is also an element of whip-smart and wicked humour in this. In Annie’s memory of a good year with “trips to the park and jam sandwiches” I was automatically reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s lament of “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.” There’s a very bitter humour here that enriches Annie’s position beyond just a fearful martyr.

Hemingway’s Ghost

Caught up with another film on Netflix that I had missed at the Cinema: Dom Hemingway. Please keep in mind major plot spoilers will follow. Dom Hemingway is a 2013 film written and directed by Richard Shepard. Jude Law takes the title role of Dom, a cockney villain having finished a 12-year stint for an undisclosed crime. Co-stars include Richard E Grant as Dickie Black, Dom’s sartorially preoccupied best friend; and Emilia Clarke as Evelyn Hemingway, Dom’s daughter who has not had contact with Dom since he went in to prison.

Dom has maintained his silence throughout his time in prison and is now looking to collect. On his discharge from prison he meets with old accomplice and friend Dickie who informs Dom that he has been invited to visit with their previous employer Mr Fontaine (Demian Bechir), a man “raised in a Russian convent who kills people for a living.” This involves a trip to France; a motif employed across British cinema to represent removal from the mores of society: in Foreign Parts the normal rules are suspended. Mr Fontaine is a dangerous criminal kingpin who plays by the same old school rules as Dom – even when Dom insults him, he recognises he owes Dom a debt so doesn’t have him killed in a ditch. Dom receives his reward but following a bacchanalian night and ill-advised drive loses it all after a predictable crash. Mr Fontaine dies and his paramour Paolina (Madalina Ghenea) makes off with Dom’s money. Dom must return to London, to reality.

Dom is a dinosaur at least in part because of his ‘code of ethics’ and his adherence to this puts him at continual risk. Dom is a scoundrel in the mould of the Lock Stock rogues, a philosophising cockney wide-boy who self-identifies as a ‘peasant’, a violent men with a penchant for poet and inadequate self-reflection. Later, Dom is trying to get work as a safe cracker from Lester (Jumayn Hunter), the son of a rival and someone who bears a grudge for Dom’s past misdeeds. It is all a lampoon, a rigged bet with Dom’s penis on the chopping block. Lester takes the time to explain to Dom that believing in a code in prison left him cheated and now outside it will cause him further loss. Only the timely arrival of the security services allows Dom and Dickie to escape intact.

The threat of emasculation is, unsurprisingly, a major one, but not just for the obvious reasons. The film opens with Dom a soliloquy about his penis and its many attributes while being fellated:

Dom’s code is identity to his masculinity; it is both his power and his peril, an uncontrollable ID that lands him in trouble with Mr Fontaine; he ‘wanks open a safe’ only to be caught gloating by Lester who has tricked with misdirection. Dom doesn’t just have a penis, he is his penis.

It is perhaps no surprise that the character shares a surname with the writer Ernest Hemingway, pioneer of a minimalist style of writing that has come to be associated with his ultra-masculine values. Dom isn’t a perfect cypher for the writer Hemingway’s style of masculinity (Dom doesn’t hunt, though he will eat what has been hunted) but much like Hemingway the author, there is a sense that someone like Dom, after twelve years away, is not a good fit for the world. The film’s soundtrack emphasizes this distemporality with the use of old songs. I fear many were a touch too old; twelve years ago was the time of Limp Bizkit, Eminem and Coldplay. This was perhaps done to emphasize the Britishness of this production, and British talent tends to be very, very middle-class. Still, Dom comes across as a man out of time, even in his own time.

The film isn’t quite trying to eulogize Dom, however. In a lot of ways, I felt Dom Hemingway had come to bury the maverick rogue of Britfilm, not to praise him. Dom’s wild appetites cause him to crash, his criminal past cost him his wife and family, his rages several times risk his life, as does his vanity. I came away with very much the sense that Dom Hemingway is the bookend to films like Lock, Stock… and Layer Cake that (re)introduced us to the (very lucrative) idea of lovable rogues on bumbling capers. Dom is the man at the end of that life, worn down and used up. The most powerful moments in the film come when he realises this: when he is running from Lester, when he is at his ex-wife Kathy’s grave. It is surprisingly unsentimental about those earlier films; Dom is shockingly, casually racist, an implicit critique of the all too often, all too white cast of those earlier films (which Dom Hemingway does not reproduce).

It holds a very British sensibility, particularly a British masculinity. Compared to Don Jon, the masculine identity of Dom Hemingway is immobile. There’s no sense in Dom Hemingway that Dom might have an epiphany and change; the only epiphany he can have is of who he is and how to come to terms with that. There is no modern masculine identity, only a backwards look at how things were and aren’t now. The scene where Dom, fresh from prison, lights up in a pub, illustrates this: smoking in pubs is a manly thing, but also a thing of the past. Dom, a relic, still lights up in defiance. There is an element within the film of longing for this, even as it acknowledges that it is a thing that is gone.

The film’s relationship to masculinity is a complicated one. Dom is aggressive and confrontational but nearly every time his braggadocio ends up with him in trouble. When he is humble things go better for him: this is replicated in his relationships with his daughter, with his employer, even with a woman whose life he saves. Furthermore, by the metric of provider and protector, Dom has failed as a man not in spite of his macho attitude, but because of it. He was not even able to contribute to the cost of Kathy’s burial, and she had divorced him before she died. He did not see Evelyn grow up, and she will not call him ‘Dad.’

However, I think a narrative strain of the film is not one in which Dom must change, but rather acknowledge the changed world. After his crash, rather than rush to get his money, Dom engages in a single act of heroism in saving the life of Melody (Kerry Condon), a girl brought in by Mr Fontaine to entertain Dom. She tells Dom that in saving her life, luck will come to him. Later on, he spots Melody in London and confronts her with the fact that his luck has been shit, but then confesses what he really wants is not money but to speak with his daughter. When Dom accepts his place in a chaotic universe, things start to go his way. It is important to keep in mind that Dom does not change but persists until the universe comes round to him. Evelyn softens to him and Dom gets to be properly acquainted with his grandson. Serendipity causes him to cross Paolina’s path once more. With intimidation and clever hands, he rides fate’s coat-tails as they turn to him.

Unfortunately, I think Jude Law was miscast for this role, which would have been a tough act for anyone. The lovable cockney rogue is a well tilled furrow, quoting cod philosophy as he gets his knuckles bloody, and repetition has made it commonplace. There are times where Law’s dialect sounds forced. When he is best are those moments where we see that the wide-boy mantle is slipping from Dom’s shoulders, where he is alone and in doubt. In silence I found Law’s Dom compelling, a portrait of physical dejection, but he never quite pulls off the physical menace. A scene where he is shouting at La Fontaine fell flat; it might have been intentional but it came across as not so much a man out of his depth but rather a man who had never done anything like this before. If I can engage in a spot of fantasy nepotism I actually found myself imagining a brother of mine in the role. There’s a certain snarl of intonation that Law lacked. It is in the final scene, across from Paolina, with his whispered threats in her ear, that Law truly attained menace.

Richard E Grant was very good as Dickie, used just enough to contrast with Dom. Dom invites himself into Dickie’s home in one scene, it is undeniable that Dickie, like Dom, is an end-point of one of the lads: the man of taste and culture. Much like Dom’s dreams of wealth and freedom, Dickie’s aspirations have really come to nothing. Grant is perfect in this role: arch, droll, a little bit cowardly, Dom’s staunch ally.

The film does replicate the usual Brit-flick issues of female representation. Women are possessions, ciphers, trophies, sibyls. His wife remarried but is always his ‘possession’; Melody appears to provide cryptic guidance and affirmation before disappearing; Paolina is an opportunistic thief. We get very little of fully realised characterisation for any of the women. Evelyn powerfully pricks Dom’s faltering swagger outside a club she has been performing at, but ultimately retrenches into tentative reconciliation. Granting more female agency would require a significant rethink and rewrite of the entire script.

As with many films, this one ends with the promise of hope and while I am not disappointed, I think it could there could have been a strong arc as the epilogue to the Brit-flick culture: Dom returns from the fairy-land of crime capers to a reality that does not acknowledge and indeed throws in to question his achievements, that the immediate gratification is not worth the consequences. For my viewing, Dom’s sorrow was more compelling than Dom’s triumph.

And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence

“We revenge injuries; we repay benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn. ‘That which was luscious as locusts, anon becomes bitter as coloquintida’; and love and friendship melt in their own fire. We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.”

I had originally intended to write a little about the experience of running a roleplaying game for my brother’s stag do (a far jollier subject!) but I find myself pre-occupied with another topic. I find myself unemployed and homeless and newly single. I don’t know how important context is in this situation; things change and it is just unfortunate for me that a great many changes followed on from one another. After having quit my job and ended my tenancy I moved to a new city to live with my partner. We had already been living together for two years prior to that and I went at her invitation. I took a leap of faith only to have the other side fall out from under me; I walked from a situation that was becoming loveless.

Thankfully, I have kind parents who will put up with me even at 30. Normally I prefer to focus this blog on abstract minutiae but I am now having to think about the future which leads to a shake-up in the tone around here. I tend not to write in a colloquial style because I am not very good at it! But I digress.

I’m a cool guy and I read philosophical tracts on lunch breaks. The opening quote is from a collection by Hazlitt called ‘The Pleasure of Hating’. It’s not the best essay in the book (that goes to ‘The Fancy’ I think) but it is easy to see the culmination of human interaction to be contained within those words. (It is fair to ask whether Hazlitt, a satirist, was entirely serious, but I am taking it at face value right now). Affections, like all things, crumble and are forgotten in time.

The handy thing about quotes is that when your own words fail you, the words of others can step in to do the work for you. That is the foundation of culture, and of society: I can’t do this alone, but I have others to help me. Sad to say I am not so good a component of society; I form few bonds and loosely if at all. With the termination of my relationship I am once again a bit at sea.

I imagine myself a shipwreck after (forgive the melodrama) treachery. One would hope to be a Prospero or Edmond Dantés, discovering wealth or power on my figurative islet to strike back at those who have wronged me. Had I the means, in what manner would I choose to revenge myself? I have been wronged and no amount of gold offered me could expiate the injury done me.

There are, however, more words to help me out. It would be easy to take Hazlitt and from that develop a Hobbesian perspective of suspicion to the whole world and, to be honest, I mostly do. I don’t believe everyone is out to get me so much as expecting extra effort on the part of others outside the betterment of their own situation without extensive persuasion is a fool’s wager. But even if (and I don’t sincerely believe this) people were uniformly and universally out only for their own betterment, this saying helps me out:

“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

This is a Fake Buddha quote (he never said it, although a conversation about anger from the C5th has something similar) but that doesn’t make it any less helpful. There’s no point in staying angry, it’ll just waste your time and energy (no matter how many apologies people write for poor old Socrates). It’s much better to, if not move on, keep moving. I fake my death; I choose defeat and walk away.

I was originally going to call this blog-post something about keep walking the road: it would tie in to the blog’s title and I would be able to allude to Walk the Line. But time is perhaps easier talked about as a river that keeps on rolling. Dwelling on anger and the past would be like standing in a river and trying to catch my reflection. Think of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History:

“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”

If I stopped to be angry, the river would carry on without me and I’m just left tearing at things I can’t touch. Time is merciless and it will go on with or without me running my hands through phantoms.

Let go my anger and I’m left with the situation. I am in a bad position at a bad time to be in it, and that’s no joke. I am tremendously fortunate to have a strong support network in the form of my family. I genuinely dread to think, in today’s political climate, what my situation would be: unemployed in a strange city I just relocated to. Fortunate again that Britain’s rail network is still a bit robust and my parents have room. It could have been (and a few years back would have been) far worse.

There is probably a strain of thought that looks at my completely unattached position and thinks “Opportunity!” It may be deficit in my character or ambition but I don’t see this! Perhaps if I could drive or had been better at saving. To pre-empt the former criticism, I was pretty poor before I quit my job to move across country. The driving is a fair cop; I’m nervous behind the wheel and have made multiple excuses to avoid overcoming it.

It would be easy to pretend bravery: plenty more fish in the sea, world is my lobster, all the time in the world. Not to get too soppy but I am at a low ebb right now. There’s a ton of habits I have to unlearn, and things I have to get used to. I don’t have a direction to push in in the short-term, and long-term plans are right out. The questions I have to ask are very much of necessity. Things like: Where will I live? What will I do? An oddity of life is that when I start applying for jobs I will have to explain to complete strangers how I got to where I am. As I need to be in a position where I can talk briefly and painlessly about it, I have to take the time to heal, which truncates any further options. While jobs and commitments feel limiting they also grant us a context to dive in to. I genuinely did not like working for RBS but were I still there I would have work to occupy myself with. All I have now is time. Those friends I had are in Nottingham and Portsmouth (where I was born) but I’m not fond of either city; Nottingham in particular would be a bitter pill as memory would reach up to claw at me. I would drown in the river (figuratively).

Temperamentally I am the kind of person who likes to have a plan. I have no problem changing plans but I like to have one in the first place. Realistically reviewing my past plans I think a fair analysis would say that I might like having plans but I’m weak at executing them. A few years back I planned to do a Masters but I never did.

I was speaking with my father about this, and about Granta’s ’40 under 40’. I harbour ambitions to be an author and, vain devil that I am, I am of an age that I could just make the cut for the next tranche of selections if I catch the right eyes. My dad, being who he is, said that could be my plan. It’s not a plan though, there’s no step by step to follow, but I suppose it is a worthy goal.

I can at the very least set to work on something small and immediate. I have my writing; it’s not something to fall back on but something to occupy myself with as I try to find my place in the world. While in Salisbury I had been putting the finishing touches to This Grave Kingdom, my story of betrayal among the dead, and I had hoped to self-publish by the end of August. The mood in the air suites post-apocalypse, young adult female focused fiction. Whether it will be by the time I am finished is another matter.