Two – Now on Amazon

My debut novel, Two, has finally made its way to Amazon (UK).

Two by Teodor Reljic. Cover by Pierre Portelli

Cover by Pierre Portelli

Published in March 2014 by Merlin Publishers, Two was a culmination of a total of three years of work, starting out as flash fiction piece for Schlock Magazine, evolving into a Nanowrimo project before finally being beaten into the shape of a parallel narrative — whose main trigger stemmed from Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, though the content could not be more dissimilar — that is part coming-of-age story, part love letter to Malta’s evocative landscapes (both urban and maritime) and part a vindication of the love of books.

I spoke about a significant three-year anniversary recently, and it seems as though 2014 was a fairly significant year for me. The subsequent years have been rather more experimental — which was a necessary and enriching step — and I hope that a lot of the non-novel projects that I have been working on (comic book, film-related and other media work) will yield some fruit pretty soon.

In the meantime, I surprised myself by starting to work on something else on the sidelines. Something which is not distant from Two in both form and spirit…

Click here to order Two 

Click here to find out more about Two

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Three Years

Three years ago today, I asked a compelling and beautiful woman to accompany me on a trip to the flea market.

The place was Birgu — which I’ve written about before but whose charms have diminished somewhat over the years — and she has since confessed to me that, after I had alighted from the bus stop on which we had agreed to meet up and made our way to the dusty football ground that hosts the weekly assortment of the trash-and-treasure, that she did not understand a word of the small-talk I mumbled along the way.

I’d like to think that I’ve made something of a better effort to speak more clearly in conversations with her since then, and that her agreeing to marry me at the summer solstice this year is something of a validation, in that regard.

Virginia is a keenly intelligent but also delicate creature — who often cracks at the cruelty and mediocrity of the world, partly because she refuses to put up a shield — or, as has become something of an unfortunate trend recently, a wall — against the realities that she cannot help but process through an always-attuned anthropological eye.

It often hurts me to see her hurt, but I also know that forcing her to suppress that very same source of pain would mean asking her to compromise. To compromise on her desire for a healthier, more just world. For more reasonable and humane solutions to the problems we all face day to day.

Learning to speak more clearly with her also meant learning to articulate my own responses to her pain in a way that makes sense. ‘Makes sense’ is a loaded term here, and I guess what I mean by it is — ‘In a way that can bridge our viewpoints and perspectives, and not make them collide. In a way that will mark us out as collaborators, not isolated specialists.’

Of course, I’m still learning. As with most things that matter, I suspect that there will never be a true ‘end point’ to this education. I just hope that, three more years ahead, the bridge will be even more robust than it is now.

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June 21, 2017 – The Pub, Valletta. Photo by Paolo Monteforte

Summer

I never look forward to the Maltese summer. It’s both a popular and unpopular statement, or stance to take — depending on the level of commitment and intensity involved. Many will jeer at me for being a party-pooper, for missing the wood for the trees and even — which is both fair and unfair — for being ungrateful: other countries don’t get to enjoy this much sunshine, and neither to they have our abundance of easily-accessible beaches to dive into when it all gets a bit much.

I’ve come to understand the other’s position a bit more now that I’ve recalibrated my life in a way that suits me better; i.e., now that I am a remote-working freelancer and am at least spared the morning (and equally punishing, evening) commute to work on crammed buses whose air-conditioning is either malfunctioning or too strong: strong enough to give your body a system shock that will doubtless lead to a nasty summer cold as soon as you step out of the vehicle.

Yes, summer is in many respects a beautiful time of year — a culmination of all that we look forward to in our leisure time here: the ability to go for a swim in the sea that is readily available and abundant for us, and the ability to enjoy balmy summer evenings with friends — be it at an open-air event of some kind, or a rooftop barbecue…

But in other ways, it’s a time of year that grinds everything down. Makes it soupy, ugly. Leisure-time in summer is great — or at least, lends the impression of being postcard-perfect great — but the daily routine still remains (we’re not in schooltime-Kansas anymore) and work is compromised by the stifling heat. The heat that signals to you that you should, above all, seek shelter and rest.

But of course, the system we all operate under does not allow for that. But it should. There is something beautiful in the notion of us meeting summer the way it demands to be met. For us to let the heat consume us and — to use a phrase beloved by self-help gurus/websites — to ‘listen to our bodies’ and do what it will.

In the way that it short-circuits human efficiency, summer is a reminder to us to remain humble, because we are at the mercy of the elements — the heat being the most predominant element in Malta. Where the milder climes allow themselves to be shoved aside to facilitate our attempts at economic survival, ingenuity and the comfortable pursuit of our ambitions at our own pace, summer forces all that to grind to a halt.

Summer demands worship. But we are continually barred from simply prostrating ourselves.

iGaming island

Malta is an iGaming island. Everyone works in iGaming, and those who don’t are the drifters on the wayside, the detritus that remains after the steel ship has ripped the land to little flakes and established itself as the new citadel from whence all the riches shall flow, henceforth.

They are affable though, these iGaming people. They pay well and treat their staff well. They give out menus to their new employees – even the Maltese ones. And the Scandinavians that run these companies – most of them will, inevitably, be Scandinavian – are not like the ‘bad’ foreigners that come here.

No, they’re not like the Africans who take our jobs, or the Eastern Europeans who cause trouble. No, they are affable and kind and – strikingly, unignorably – good-looking. The latter part is important. One of my (Maltese) friends said recently – half-mockingly, half-exasperatingly (for he was married) – that he is now working in an office with “five or six solid pieces of ass”.

They are trendy, too. The men with their hipster beards and the women as attractive as we’d just said. They are bohemians, but they’re clever bohemians. No slaving away in the shadows on obscure creative work for them.

Instead, they will funnel any impulse for creativity they have into promoting colourful, fun digital slot games. Games whose inspiration may come from any quarter of civilization. Hollywood or fairy tale. Myth, or history – inevitably, there’s a game about El Dorado, and the psychotic colonial leader Pizarro is interpreted as an endearing, bumbling cartoon fool.

The iGaming people know that they are engaging in an elaborate dance of money for all to see. Their hosts know it too. The euphemism of ‘gaming’ to say ‘gambling’ is the first trot, then come the colourful games – like we said – and then comes the increase in rent. Yes, the iGaming people can afford to come to Malta because it is their own El Dorado, and one with very little dangerous wildlife to machete through. Parking and traffic will be a problem, of course, but this is why we’ve created offices for them in the most sensitive, easily reachable places.

After the election – after nasty rumours spread by ‘traitors’ began to percolate – the Prime Minister himself paid a visit to the steel ship in the hopes of tamping down any fears about Malta’s uprightness and viability that the iGaming people may have had. The ramp from the steel ship descended, and the plump, ginger Prime Minister flashed a trademark smile that hid away and fear or hesitation. This was a man ready to do business, now as ever.

This was a man who could calm the choppiest of waters – or so his smile signaled. The hand that greeted him betrayed no such over affections and affectations, but what the people then saw was a photo opportunity that will warm their hearts and reassure them that, all will remain as it was. Normality will prevail. The rents will keep rising and construction will blot the land but apart from that, normality will prevail.

The picture showed the Prime Minister in the inner recess of the steel ship. This was a world onto its own. The citadel had, of course, its own trendy cafe. Brown walls and hanging lights and a bar whose white lick of paint appeared to be perpetually fresh, as if a crafty young employee – a marketing executive by profession, a carpenter by passion – would extricate himself from his desk every now and then and funnel his skills into ensuring the bar looks fresh and ‘genuine’ at every turn.

The Prime Minister is smiling, with a cup of tea or coffee in his right hand. He is looking to the left, not facing his interlocutor.

Not facing the leader of the iGaming people, into whose mothership he was just allowed. A man as young as our very own Prime Minister, but who – despite his Nordic provenance – does not have a ginger beard like our Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, who is not used to holding cups of tea or coffee with his fingers but who would prefer to clutch Styrofoam cups or large mugs and take long, generous glups.

But he’ll make an exception this once. As will we all.

Two deadlines before lunch

With two deadlines before lunch, I shouldn’t be writing this. Instead, I should be tending to those deadlines — methodically scratching away at the tasks in a way that guarantees both efficiency and quality. I should be working at them — letting my fresh second coffee animate the things I not-so-emphatically call ‘work-work’ instead of this work — the work of expression, the work of release.

But what I’ve learned over these past few weeks — in which ‘busy’ has been the watchword in a way that I’m not at all happy about — is that carving out the time for that ‘extra’ task is what will, in the end, make you think and work better in the long run.

I do journalism and copy writing to earn a living now, and I’m coming on to nearly a year of freelancing with that particular set of skills handy. Other opportunities may be in the offing once the summer is through — and there are some potentially life-changing events set to happen along the way — and of course, the ‘passion projects‘ will always be there; beacons of hope and motivation, of more expression, and more release.

But what this work means above all is that the effort often ends up feeling ephemeral. The work is not solid in any way — it fades away as the article makes its point and does its rounds, or the piece of copy writing is absorbed by the client and put to its work of passing on business information or getting those clicks in. It would be silly to invoke the Marxist idea of feeling alienated from the means of production (it probably borders on offensive for those charged with necessary but underpaid and demeaning manual labour) but there is at least a smidgen of psychological truth to the comparison, I think.

Which is why doing this is important, in this moment, right now. Just like it’s important to read every day no matter how overwhelming things get, or to try and write — not out of some point-scoring principle, but to help tamp down those deadline-shot nerves and fractured perceptions.

Because that’s what the internet — that other crucial tool for my freelance arsenal — has done for us. It has energised, but it’s also fractured and fragmented us. So that the more we’re lost in its morass, the harder it is to get out. You end up working in nervous-mode the whole time, and every day starts to feel like one of Hercules’ labours (yes, the one involving snake heads).

So instead of slicing off snake heads in a futile and frustrating sport, I try to carve out this time instead. In the hopes that it will provide the necessary breathing room to focus my remaining energy in a way that’s free of distraction and despair.

Now, back to those deadlines.

“When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune for longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book Six

 

Utopia for whom? | Interview with Gregory Norman Bossert

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Detail from Kinzénguélé, 2003, Moukondo, Brazzaville

The new edition of the postgraduate journal Antae has come out earlier this week, and it features an interview I’ve had the pleasure of conducting with Gregory Norman Bossert — award-winning short story writer and pre-visualisation/layout artist for Industrial Light and Magic.

Though this is not the first time I’ve chatted with Greg for the purposes of an interview, this time around we had a specific — though certainly expansive — focus for our conversation, as determined by the publication’s theme this time around.

The subject was the nature of, and the possibility or impossibility of imagining what a Utopia would look like.

Going by previous interactions with Greg I’ve had in the past, I knew he would be an ideal candidate for this contribution, given his direct engagement with speculative fiction of various hues, as well as his thorough knowledge of the literary context in question.

“To propose a functional utopian reality is thus to propose the utopian person. In fact, following on my second point above, a functional utopian proposal must not just propose the existence of this utopian “for whom”, but their creation. And again, such works founder not just on the complexity of the social and psychological sciences, but on the brutal tradition of such attempts. The ties between 20th century Futurism and Fascism are an easy warning here.”

Read the full interview here

 

Unhappy with Pop Culture? Make Your Own | Ghost in the Shell & Fanboy Pandering

GHOST IN THE SHELL

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

This essay contains spoilers for Ghost in the Shell (2017). For my spoiler-free review of the film, click here

One thing that struck me in the aftermath of the live action version of Ghost in the Shell — controversially starring Scarlett Johnasson, formulaically directed by Rupert Sanders though undeniably beautiful to look at — is just how dearly some people cling onto their beloved pop culture properties, especially when a Hollywood adaptation comes around as does its thing with them, as it is wont to do.

Of course, this isn’t at all something new.

Neither is it something that I don’t myself recognise.

I’ve been guilty of it in the past, and I understand the strange cocktail that washes over a fanboy’s consciousness when these stories they’ve committed to, these stories that have carved an intimate wedge in our hearts and minds, are suddenly plucked out of their designated cubbyholes and thrust up on the big screen for all to see.

You feel as if your ownership of them is no longer a certain thing. In other words, you feel stripped of a privilege that was previously unassailable.

You feel like you should be the one telling people what this thing is really like, what it should really look and feel like, and how whatever adaptation has appeared on the scene is cheating people out of the ‘authentic’ experience of the original artifact in question.

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

But in the recent past, this was no longer all that much of a ‘thing’. Canny studios have realised that pissing off fanboys robs them of a crucial revenue stream, and so fidelity became the new thing.

Ironically, Robert Rodríguez’s Sin City could arguably be the finest example of a direct and entirely faithful comic-to-film adaptation, but the system in which it was made could be broadly described as ‘pulp arthouse’.

But with the likes of Marvel simply up and deciding to set up their own filmmaking arm, fanboys could finally breathe a sigh of relief and revel in the knowledge that their beloved properties will be projected onto the world stage more or less unchanged.

They were finally able to tell their peers, “Look, that is the thing I’ve been obsessing over for so long. Isn’t great?”, instead of mumbling some irritate thing about how this is all horrible and skewed and why are you enjoying it?

So in a way, Sanders’ take on Ghost in the Shell felt like a refreshing jolt of nostalgia for a time when nerd butthurt was an automatic reaction to whatever adaptation of a beloved property came out in Hollywood at any given time.

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

It was all salted by a juicily political polemic too — the whitewashing accusations that are awkward because, you know, she’s a robot but then they’re also justified cos, you know, Hollywood so White — so that it suddenly felt like we were on contested terrain once again: this wasn’t just a motion comic/live action cartoon for fanboys to lap up, it was an adaptation through-and-through, and thus open to criticism from all sides.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attemps to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal

In a cinematic landscape so aggressively framed by well-oiled franchises holding fanboys close to their hearts, even something otherwise equally a part of the blockbuster machine like Ghost in the Shell begins to feel like something of an outlier.

And ironically enough, its attempts to have the cake an eat it too — even if we assume the most cynical interpretation to be correct, that all of this would be in aid of raking in as large and diverse an audience as possible — only bolster its status as something of a more vibrant collage than its ultimately more successful counterparts.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, because it’s guaranteed success so far, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attempted to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal.

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

As if to compensate for casting Johnasson in the lead role, the rest of the cast is actually a pretty diverse international mix. ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is wonderful as the mentor figure Daisuke Aramaki — and gets to speak Japanese throughout — while Johnasson’s closest friend and ally Batou is played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, with the rest of the main cast rounded off by Juliette Binoche (France) and Peter Ferdinando (UK).

Also, the script allows for a notable mirror-image diversion from the standard Campbellian trope that most high-concept blockbusters of Ghost in the Shell’s ilk operate under.

Effectively, [Ghost in the Shell 2017] flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole

In this East-meets-West collage, it’s somewhat expected for Sanders and co. to take a more ‘American’ tack to the philosophy that underlies the entire Ghost in the Shell enterprise, and go to great lengths to humanise Johnasson’s Motoko in an attempt to give the audience a fully-rounded emotional arc for the character; as contrasted with the more nuanced approach to the cybernetic subject that we might find in the Japanese source material.

So, as things turn out, Johansson’s Major/Motoko discovers her human roots and sets out to reclaim them fully; rediscovering ‘her’ biological mother and embracing that her memories as genuine — which were previously suppressed by the Corporation that kept her as an agent in their employ.

Effectively, this flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole.

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Instead, Motoko’s trajectory is more akin to a journey FROM the Special World (as a cybernetically enhanced agent operating in a highly rarefied dystopian-cyberpunk universe) BACK TO the Ordinary World (when she discovers what really happened to her ‘organic’ self and rushes back to the warm embrace of what’s left of her human family).

As the film’s coda reveals however, this about-face does not mean Motoko will quit being an agent. What the ending suggests — apart from a lead-in to a sequel that is unlikely to happen given the film’s dismal box office showing — is that Motoko will continue to ply her skills with, presumably, a renewed peace of mind and a wider understanding of the world around her.

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

She is no longer a cog in the Corporation’s machine, so the Hero’s Boon she in fact brings back — and which she’s aided in giving full bloom to by Daisuke — is the ability to do her job freed from the agendas of the agency — to actually do her work for the ‘greater good’ instead of doing dangerous work in service of the Corporation’s bottom line.

Certainly, this is a small enough innovation on the concept. It’s a modest and tacked-on twist that ultimately, didn’t pay off enough at the box office, for whatever reason.

But it does point towards a realm of possibility that opens up once you give slavish fidelity the boot.

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Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Pop culture artifacts like superheroes and even properties like Ghost in the Shell enjoy a mythic status in our consciousness which sometimes even spans generations.

The laws of intellectual property of course bars us with tinkering with them liberally — though the very nature of the internet runs counter to this idea, but that’s a discussion for another time — but licensed adaptations should at least be allowed a take on them that brings in something fresh.

We could make the mechanical vs organic metaphor here once again: with Marvel Studios and the like producing functional and successful but ultimately uniform fare while those filmmakers allowed to do something different are making wonderful work out of the unpredictable organic matter of Story.

But what it also brings to mind is, if you want something done differently, you should just up and do it yourself.

Unlike the dazzling but oppressive cybernetic interface that gives Ghost in the Shell its dystopian kick, the internet provides those willing enough to go the extra mile at least some leeway to producing their own stuff based on the things they love.

And if what you love is genre fiction, there’s plenty to play with there that will not, in fact, get you in copyright-related trouble…  

 

April Update | Censorship, Near Future SF & Campus Book Fest

April got underway to a head-start as I finished up my soujourn at the Kinemastik Film Club by screening the both beloved and reviled cult classic The Fifth Element to what seemed to be a pretty nostalgic and misty-eyed audiences.

The film was certainly a lot of fun, but it also felt a bit patchier than a lot of us remembered; with a jokey mess of a plot and visuals that were — yes — stunning in parts but hardly had enough ‘wow’ set-piece moments to justify the cult status Besson’s space opera still enjoys (as bolstered by both the Moebius inspired settings and Jean Paul-Gaultier costumes).

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Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997), dir. Luc Besson

It was still somewhat heartening to see all that taking place on the big screen at the British Legion in Valletta, as I’m pottering away on my own piece of decidedly ambitious but also — one hopes, as a check on said ambition — silly and satirical slice of sci-fi. But soon after that, I was invited to participate to a project that teased at the more sober qualities of that same genre…

Archived Futures Harvest: Near-future SF writing in Rabat (sort of…)

Last week was in fact a pretty hectic one for this exact reason, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rewarding. While details remain under wraps until the first week of May when the exhibition is set to open, what I can in fact tell you is that my friend Glen Calleja of Studio Solipsis invited me to do some writing for him at his Rabat studio, and that it was a great — if rather exhausting — time.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

The extended exercise took its cue from a workshop organised some months back, and focused on a collective imaginary of the future. The content I was creating channeled paranoia about surveillance and smart technology, and took the form of fabricated (not ‘fake’!) news articles, surveys and the interpretation of surreal prose texts — or are they coded messages by underground movements?

Even apart from the coolness of working in Rabat and Glen’s zen-like demeanour and keen intelligence — and, of course, the project’s own rich potential, which runs on the intriguing paradox of mixing futuristic speculations with the instruments of the archive — gave me ample opportunity to flex some storytelling muscles.

I’ve always been one to work to limits, but being told to write something creatively based on a fabricated news report, or culled from — also fabricated — surveys and coded messages, gave me a special kind of frisson. I will definitely be applying some of these devices to my own writing in the future.

The Archived Futures Harvest exhibition launches on May 5 and runs for two months

Talking in public: Campus Book Fest, ACM Lab

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

As it happens, Glen Calleja was a stall-mate of my dad’s at the Campus Book Festival which ran at the beginning of the month — book-binding is one of his many skills — and it was after he heard me speak at the event that he proposed we collaborate on the Archived Futures project.

The talk — which took place on the bright and sunny morning of April 4 — went reasonably well, I felt. The original idea was to do something about MIBDUL together with Inez, but she happened to be in London for a workshop at the time. So instead of a visually-enhanced guide of how we’re slowly putting the comic together, I decided to speak about how my first novel kicked my ass into submission and taught me that structure is a very important thing indeed — and not, as I had foolishly assumed, the provenance of those who lack verve and imagination.

Some audience interaction proved that I was not alone in these concerns, and it’s always nice to find real-life correlatives to conversations you would normally have online — which lend a disturbing patina of anonymity even to your closest friends.

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and intellectual property lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

More recently, I was asked to participate to the latest edition of the ‘ACM Lab’, which are public talks organised by Arts Council Malta on various issues germane to Maltese culture. This time around it was all about censorship and/or censorship, with lawyer Dr Jeanine Rizzo breaking down the new laws pertaining to freedom of expression, which led to a debate with theatre-maker Adrian Buckle — who bore the brunt of the law as it previously stood — and Mario Azzopardi of the Film Classification board.

The discussion was polite enough, with all of us agreeing that transparency is key in age classification — citing the BBFC as an admirable benchmark — but that when it came to theatrical productions in particular — whose producers are now free to self-classify in Malta — an element of risk always remained.

ACM’s head of strategy Toni Attard asked me whether I think Malta’s artists were ready to take full advantage of the newly relaxed laws, and whether evidence of this can be found on the ground. As ever, I believe that the ‘slow’ approach is necessary to all of this; we should keep our eyes peeled on what’s happening, but also be patient enough to wait until enough evidence has accumulated before making our final analysis.

And in our spare time…

Beyond all that, it appears that science fiction is something of a running thread this month. I’m taking steps towards making a trip to WorldCon 75 at Helsinki possible right now — read: assessing the financial viability of it all — which has motivated me to pick up a couple of Hugo shorlistees.

too like lightning

I’ve started with Ada Palmer’s ambitious and, let’s be frank, pretty fucking dazzling Too Like Lightning, which I can only describe as far-future SF written by a member of the Enlightenment literati from the 18th century. I’m only about a quarter of the way through and I’m not sure I’m quite getting all the nuances of the labyrinthine world that Palmer — a 35-year-old professor of history from the University of Chicago — plunges us into, but I’m also hooked.

Easier on the intellect but no less engaging is The Expanse, which I’ve finally gotten to after stalling for a few months and following a slew of recommendations. It certainly doesn’t disappoint: the world-building (!) is tight, controlled and crisp, the characters are richly but clearly drawn and the political intrigue is on the right side of soap opera.

Sure, Fifth Element it ain’t. But I’m looking forward to burning through the rest of it.

March Update | Space, Cinema Pulp 2017 & Comics Galore!

The tail-end of March has been somewhat hellish for me; with freelance work suddenly clustering together to make sure that I’m sweating my way through my dreams just as a trip to Rome approaches.

Now that I am in Rome and things have calmed down somewhat, I thought I’d put together a digest of the stuff that I’ve been up to, and some stuff I’m looking forward to.

Kinemastik Film Club: Gonzo Space Pulp Takeover in Valletta

buckaroo banzai

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

As of March 15 I’ve had the pleasure of curating the Kinemastik Film Club — Malta’s main source of arthouse cinema, run by the great Slavko Vukanovic and a team of trusty international collaborators — and given both MIBDUL and the upcoming release of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I thought I’d choose films that fit that particular bill.

barbarella

Barbarella (1968)

Kicking off with Barbarella — which the audience laughed heartily with — and continuing on with Mario Bava’s corny but atmospheric Planet of the Vampires — which the audience laughed heartily at — this Wednesday (March 29) we continue our gonzo journey with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. It’s a film that’s both weird and strangely life-affirming, and I’m sure the reaction of all those present will be a lot more varied than it was for the previous two movies. But I do expect some baffled smiles throughout.

John Wick: Chapter 2, Logan, Kong: Skull Island and The Welcome Return of Pulp Cinema

john_wick_2

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

But things have also been good on the mainstream cinema front; and I’ve been happy to review some tentpole releases — for a change — which left me feeling like my time and money wasn’t entirely wasted while watching them, while also somewhat restoring my faith in the idea that Hollywood can actually exist to simply entertain us, and not just be a financial placeholder for studios to make money off stale franchises.

The body-count heavy action sequel and pin-sharp pastiche John Wick: Chapter 2 remains king of that particular crop so far, with an oddly intricate internal mythology lending a full-bodied, Campbellian twist to its ludicrous but fun, and bordering on sheer supernatural fantasy, universe of assassins operating under a strictly — and bureaucratically — imposed moral code.

Ramping up the violence and overall pizzazz that has made the original something of a dark horse among contemporary trash cinema, the sequel is a balletic tour-de-force of hyper-violence that refines its pastiche so perfectly it’s hard to believe a human being, and not a machine, has put it together. And for once, that can stand as high praise.

logan

Logan (2017)

Logan, on the other hand, was made all the better for being more human than its other superhero counterparts. Gone is the upbeat flash of Marvel cinema and the dark gloss and machismo of DC’s attempts at the same — this is a swansong for grizzled hero that leaks blood, sweat and tears in every frame.

It’s still a sort-of ‘Greatest Hits’ collection of some of the finest of dystopian work out there — it’s essentially a superhero flick with filtered through Children of Men and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and No Country for Old Men — but all of this is woven into the proceedings with a strange kind of grace, which is helped along by a couple of great, earnest performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in particular.

kongskullisland.0.0

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Less human than either but certainly less nihilistic than both, Kong: Skull Island is a low-key triumph of actually-good CGI and devil-may-care pulp storytelling. Set pieces like a gas-mask-clad Tom Hiddleston katana-ing his way through subterranean evil lizards and the titular Grand Ape smashing military helicopters into each other to the tune of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid are not to be sniffed at, and while notably lacking in any character development that convinces, here’s a film that finally lets us have some fun, and saves the potential franchise-building for the post-credits sequence.

COMICS! Enforcers and Vampire Hunters and Once Again, MIBDUL

doctor strange

Doctor Strange: new ongoing series written by Jason Aaron with art by Chris Bachalo

I’ve also had some pulpy fun with comics lately, devouring the Jason Aaron/Chris Bachalo (and others) run on Doctor Strange to the point where I’m fully caught up with the series, and looking forward for the next issue to drop. Which makes my current monthly comics stack look something like: Doctor AphraGreen ValleyThe WildstormInjection (gotta have that Warren Ellis fix) and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

I have a feeling that comics are doing okay as far as a steady drip of quality titles is concerned.

enforcer

Enforcer: Tough Luck #1 — written by Brian Funk with art by Artyom Trakhanov

There have also been a couple of fun first issues I’ve had the pleasure of delving into. The first one is a little bit special, given that I got it as a proud Kickstarter patron. Enforcer: Tough Luck #1 plunges us into a world that’s part film noir, part Lovecraft and part Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, only it’s all far more grizzled and far less forgiving. The art runs the gamut from great to slightly patchy, with a rough cross-hatching style that sometimes feels dynamic and cool but at other times is the wrong side of messy. But writer Brian Funk (yes, really) has created a fun world that I look forward to spending some time in.

anno dracula

On the other hand, I’ve already experienced the world of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels, and enjoyed it so much that picking up Anno Dracula #1 — the new comic book adaptation of the same book series penned by Newman himself, illustrated by Paul McCaffrey and published by Titan Comics — was something on a no-brainer. Newman’s witty and reference-happy trudge through vampire lore is very much in evidence, while McCaffrey’s thick outlines really accentuate the Gothic pastiche feel of the entire endeavour (as if to say: ‘we know we’re propping up the old as the new, and we want to go all out’).

timthumb

I was alerted to the fact that the Anno Dracula novels were getting their own comic book adaptation courtesy of Chris Thompson, who was also kind enough to interview Inez and myself during last year’s edition of Malta Comic Con, and who also participated in a discussion on superhero cinema and whether or no it’s ‘ruining’ comics — chaired by Gorg Mallia and which also included my print media counterpart Ramona Depares, and myself — during that same edition of the Con.

If you can get over the annoying phone static that dogs his interview with Inez and myself — and which starts roughly around the 1:04:00 mark — you’ll get to hear us talk about the genesis of MIBDUL and what keeps us going. You’ll also get to hear a Maltese bus actually showing up at its stop. Which is a true rarity, I can assure you.

Meanwhile, April should be off to a fun start as I get to give a talk about my struggles and euphorias with storytelling at the Campus Book Festival — that’s happening on April 4 at 11:00. Hope to see you Malta-based peeps there!

Featured photo: Finding freelance bliss at Rome’s Caffe’ Letterario

By all means, paint yourself into that corner

‘Don’t paint yourself into a corner’ doesn’t make for great writing advice.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, painting oneself into a corner and then struggling to get out of it is often what keeps the piece from sliding into complacency.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it. It also means that to get out of that corner will require you to execute a seemingly impossible feat of mental dexterity.

And don’t lucky escapes feature in countless of our favourite stories from antiquity to now?

Of course, one never aims to paint oneself into a corner. Corners are not fun places to be, generally. After all, they are a staple of stereotypical classroom punishment for a reason.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it

But the work of writing is fluid and conducive to change. And sometimes, that change is a matter of necessity, not choice. But maybe, that change — maddening and plan-shattering as it may be at the start — could turn out to be the spark that you needed to get your story going in the first place.

It could be that the corner was inevitable. That you thought you were heading out into a green valley of plenty but that in reality, you were stuck in a one-bedroom apartment and bumping your head in the corner of the room made you realise the reality of your predicament and now, how will you solve it?

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece. You can believe that inspiration will see you through, but ultimately all flashes of inspiration are just that: flashes. And you can map out your story based on the most rigorously researched schema this side of Joseph Campbell or Robert McKee, but rely too much on the mold and the creases will begin to show.

Some of the scariest and most satisfying moments in my own writing process for MIBDUL came when I realised I’ve locked down some narrative choices early on that will severely limit me later.

But once the initial panic wore off, possibilities cropped up. And the best thing about these new possibilities — which I won’t reveal for spoilery reasons, obviously — is that they did not crop up out of thin air, as new images and ideas rearing for a stillbirth and countless rehashing before being beaten into story-appropriate shape. They were reactions to already-existing plot points and character arcs, and so they came into a world with a shape and texture ready to receive them.

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece

Instead of a domestic corner that you’re ‘painting’ yourself into, perhaps another variant of the metaphor would be more useful.

I prefer to think of it as the corner of a boxing ring. A place to regroup after being beaten down, and from where you can plan a fresh attack based on knowledge you’ve just gleaned about an opponent whose strength you may have underestimated…

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