Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Dirk gently breaks the rules.

I've just watched and greatly enjoyed season 2 of Dirk Gently. Or, to give it its full title Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

I would rage against the reports that the series has been cancelled, but I enjoyed it for what it was and if there is no more I don't feel I've been left hanging. More would be good though.


What I thought worth a blog post was the fact that Dirk Gently (by the late great Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe fame), is a story that succeeds by (or despite) taking what to many is a holy cow of fiction writing and shooting it in the face. Dirk Gently doesn't just sneak in the odd piece of deus ex into the narrative for earnest readers to hunt down and decry. Instead it embraces deus ex. It makes it the eponymous Dirk's superpower.

***

Deus ex machina

The term has evolved to mean a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device.

A further evolution means that some will employ the term "deus ex" as a pejorative aimed at essentially any convenient unlikely event that solves a difficult problem. It is often conflated with bad writing or a failure of imagination.


***

Dirk Gently solves ridiculously complex mysteries by bumbling around and waiting for all the pieces to fall into his lap then assemble themselves. He goes for a milkshake and the main witness is the waitress serving him and introduces herself. He needs more clues ... he reaches into a random trashcan and pulls one forth. Fate wants him to solve these cases. The ghost in the machine is not trying to hide ... it's front and center in a top hat and tails doing a dance for us.



So how do we enjoy a story in which that enemy of enjoyment, deus ex, dominates?

Well, it seems that Douglas Adams has noticed that many (most?) stories employ deus ex and it is just a matter of how well the author disguises that. If you dig deep enough into a great many stories you find yourself able to justifiably ask, "What are the odds that XXXX?" Where XXXX is some event or coincidence without which the whole thing could become untangled.

The odds that Hero McHero turns up at Victim Village during the narrow window in which he (or she) could be useful rather than a week early followed by a dull wait or a two weeks late having missed all the best looting, are often slim.

Many of the deus ex police fail to acknowledge that the reason stories are told about real events is often that those real events are remarkable and amazingly unlikely. It's the one survivor out of the thousand that drowned in the sinking that gets to tell the story of the terrible storm. It's the lottery winner that the reporter hunts down for their tale, not a random one of the million ticket buyers who lost. It's the person who survived the hanging because the rope snapped that is celebrated, not the pile of corpses with broken necks.

However, there clearly is a level of deus ex that becomes wholly unbelievable and (so the argument goes) robs the story of tension, and therefore interest. How can you care that our heroes have run into a dead end alley with a horde of deadly monsters in hot pursuit if deus ex guarantees that something random will save them. An unsuspected portal will appear to another world. Hithertoo unmentioned aliens will lower a ladder from their flying saucer. Or something.

It's a genuine concern.

And yet I loved watching Dirk Gently and so did many others. Enough at least to get it through a second season and give it an 8.4 average on imdb.com.

It works for two main reasons. One is because the main plot provides a wealth of imaginative ... stuff ... along with the temporary adrenaline thrills of chases, explosions and fights, and the big picture reveals itself miraculously rather like those street artists who paint a picture in counter-intuitive order, areas of light and shade first, and finally the whole thing turns out to have been upside down and is righted for the reveal and suddenly there's Elvis!

The second reason, the kicker, is that the main story is not the main story, or rather it isn't where the emotional interest lies. Really we are interested in the characters who are being swept along in this maelstrom. We want to know how and if their personal ambitions, concerns, and relationships will resolve. We care about their growth, what they get out of all this, how they will end up. Yes some magical universal hoohar will sort the mystery out and everything will become clear in the end. The key to the final door will probably have been in Dirk Gently's shoe all the time. Deus ex. But that's not what matters.

It isn't what matters in many other stories either, but none of them wear their colours so boldly on their sleeves as Dirk Gently's does. And so there is always room for the deus exer to come in excitedly pointing at unlikely events and rather missing that the real case to be solved is not who dunnit but the human story supported by this unlikely scaffolding.



















Sunday, 7 January 2018

#3 Chapter 1 critique

To understand what we're doing here check out Chapter Critique Corner.

To reiterate a key point - this process depends on audience participation. I'm just hosting, not taking part in the critique.

This one is a prologue but I myself judge those by all the same metrics as a chapter 1. If you expect someone to read it and keep reading then it has to entertain and hook.  

You can offer your thoughts in the comments - these are moderated and I will pass "tough love" but not anything that I feel crosses the line into meanness or mockery. So, rather than waste your efforts, do bear in mind that the object of the exercise here is to help. That said, robust critiques are encouraged and I guess we will just have to find our level as we go.


You can also email critiques to me and I will see if they can be transferred to the blog post in a way that preserves their editing markups.




PROLOGUE: STORMCHILD


The South of the Dreur Woods crawled with men drunk on bloodlust. Thousands of feet scuffled, jumped, and pushed in the muddied snow. Spell-bound and screaming, lusty and raucous, the humans entranced by the Shadow Woman danced and reached. The throng pressed, arms and limbs swinging, eyes too wide, mouths open with screams of worship and pleas of desire.

Between stark trees the unclean swarmed and massed, filling the North of the woods. Pale limbs and staggering bodies bumped shoulders, lips silent as death. Dead and rotting, staunch with post-mortem rigour, stiff and animated in jerked spouts of movement, they stammered and waited for the commands of the only voice they would ever heed again.

Blood poured in rivers from an altar of solid grey stone at the heart of the Dreur Woods. The snow was stained red with the blood of countless people. There was blood on the trees where dead hands smeared against them. There was blood on the feet of the enchanted men and women who trampled the weak in their earnest straining toward the Shadow Woman.

At the head of the altar she stood, glorious hair whipping in winter winds, garbed in a tattered black dress. The crowd cried out to her hungrily. At her feet knelt a pale man with hair the colour of sand, begging and stammering, fists clutched before him as if in prayer. She sneered at him and her hair danced in the wind.
A young girl squirmed in the Shadow Woman’s grasp, her hair also the colour of sand. With her one fist in the girl’s sandy hair, the Shadow Woman lifted the girl’s head and exposed her gullet to the roaring crowd. She slit through the girl’s throat, and the girl’s body convulsed and collapsed. Her blood joined the river, and her soulless eyes opened. Taking her dead sister’s hand, she walked into the mass of black eyed corpses.

The throng of lifeless bodies welcomed her, swallowed her, and the crowd of star struck onlookers roared its approval. Men and women vied to be next, argued, stretched desperate hands to the Shadow Woman’s feet. The Shadow Woman’s laughter rang through the murky woods, and she grabbed the sandy-haired man by the nape of his burnous.

‘Did you think this was the end, Rishtai?’ she whispered into his pained face.

The pale man’s muscles bunched and strained against her grip, but in his eyes there was love and loss, there was the ache of betrayal and the hopelessness that comes when a child dies. His tears had long dried up, but sobs wrenched his struggling body.

‘Please,’ he begged.

The Shadow Woman’s dark eyes swirled. Pleasure tipped up the corners of her perfect mouth, and she kissed him long and deep. Black inked over his blue eyes and his pleas turned into awe-filled cries of worship.

Blood smeared, he grabbed the dagger from the Shadow Woman’s hands. At random he grasped the outstretched hand of a desperate man and pulled him onto the altar. The man threw his fist triumphantly into the air and screamed, but his scream bubbled to a stop when the sandy haired man slit his throat, to the crowd’s raging approval. He smiled at the Shadow Woman and she laughed and laughed.

Behind the Shadow Woman three bodies lay strewn in the red snow, three who seemed lifeless at first, but if one looked closer, the truth became clear. Nobody looked closer. Not now, not yet.

The first was a man whose long blonde hair sprawled about his chiselled face, unmoving but for his grey eyes. With an earnest gleam to those eyes, he watched the Shadow Woman. Watched and longed.

Beside him lay a woman without colour, white as snow, black as night, the colour of rainbows or the sun or the shadows. Her closed eyes did not move, but she held the man’s hand with her legs splayed, like one who had fallen from a great height. The third man lay with his eyes pinched shut. A brown hood covered his face and he held both hands to his chest like a man in a coffin.

No breath moved their chests, no blood pinked their cheeks. In a forest filled to the brim with the dead and dying, these three stood out against the crimson snow, but not a one batted an eye or puffed a breath.

A cloud of darkness hovered over the Dreur Woods.

The Shadow Woman shouted and the cloud spread out of the Dreur Woods towards Aysgarth with finger-like tendrils that reach and searched. It overcame the farmlands slowly, methodically. Like toxic vapour with the mind of a man, it swallowed farmsteads and fields, horses and cows, carefully searching for human hearts and minds to turn.

A tendril dug into a farmer’s brain as he sat on his porch sipping at a cup of hot drink. The metal cup clattered onto the wooden porch and rolled down the steps. The man’s heavy boots clunked down after it, but he did not pick it up. Instead, he picked up speed and ran, faster than men that old could run, into the dark cloud and towards the Dreur Woods, with eyes as black as night.

The door of his home opened, and his daughter called to him, her pigtails fluttering in the wind. Her calls turned to shouts of fear. She left the door and ran the other way, through the house and out the back door with terror in her eyes, but it was no use. The black cloud swallowed her, and soon her lusting eyes turned to the Dreur Woods and her bare feet ran towards her demise.

At last there was someone who saw, who noticed the three splayed behind the Shadow Woman and the red field of blood. Above the earth called Erdil and beyond the land of dreams called Träumenil, higher than the realm of the immortals called Götteril and beyond the end of the reach of the stars, the Great Fathers stood in council. A massacre unlike any other in all of time blotched the North of Öldeim and the Fathers who had created all argued, as they almost never did, about the fate of the world. The Father of Creation insisted that Erdil be blotted out so that they might start over and create a race more malleable than the insolent humans.

The Father of Time would not hear of it. He insisted that time be kept pure and that the guilty be punished, but the innocent be given a new life. The Great Father did not speak at first. His eyes were far away on the Dreur Woods and tears wet his cheeks. Every created thing held its breath, even the trees paused in their ever-long dance and the stones ceased their whispers. The river of blood paused its flow, a man’s grey eyes closed for a second, two sisters’ hearts beat for a moment, and then the Great Father spoke.

‘Let us make a Stormchild.’











Wednesday, 3 January 2018

REVIEW: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones



I read this to my daughter, Celyn (10), who is too disabled to read books by herself.

I had seen some of the anime film version years ago but remembered basically nothing of it.

I found the whole thing original and refreshing. The point of view character (Sophie) is engaging and no-nonsense with a very capable can-do attitude. The story moves along at a good pace and the whole moving castle / multiple doors thing is a great idea and used well.

The Welsh connection is well-played. It expands the scope of the book world and the continuing reveals keep everything interesting.

My only complaint is that the end seemed rather tortured with so many story-lines converging in ways that felt rather unsatisfying / hard to believe. The (highlight for spoiler) Miss Angorian part, for example, seemed to come out of left-field and made very little sense to me.

If I were a touch harsher then that ending would pull this down to a 4*. But Celyn loved it. I enjoyed reading it. And I'm in a good mood. So 5*.

I can see why it's a classic, and if you have a 10 year old, point them at it! 

We've now finished the trilogy and it's quality stuff for the Y end of YA!



You can go 'like' my review on Goodreads if you like!





An index of my reviews.