The Present Day And The Cyberpunk Genre -A Ramble

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Well, since I was still busy with writing this old collection of cyberpunk stories at the time of writing these articles, I thought that I’d take a very brief look at how the present day can affect any cyberpunk fiction that you might write.

After all, the central attraction of the cyberpunk genre isn’t really as “futuristic” as it used to be in the heyday of the genre. We live in a world where the internet is a mundane thing, where many people carry smartphones, where virtual reality is an actual thing and where, far from being “futuristic rebel anti-heroes”, computer hackers are rightly seen as being just another type of common criminal.

Even some of the other relatively recent parts of the cyberpunk genre, like nefarious government conspiracies, aren’t really as “dystopian” or “futuristic” as they once were. I mean, after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the idea that everyone could be spied on for no justifiable reason has almost become normal. Likewise, the 2016 US election was riddled with fake news articles on social media, alleged interference from Russia etc… and the election result was upheld anyway.

Likewise, the whole “mega corporation” thing that is a huge part of the genre is almost an everyday part of life. A few major tech companies already wield gigantic amounts of influence these days (eg: just look at all of the squabbling about Facebook’s news algorithms over the past few years. If Facebook wasn’t extremely influential, no-one would care about it’s algorithms), so it doesn’t seem quite like the “futuristic” thing that it might have been in the 1980s.

So, what is a modern cyberpunk writer to do?

Simply put, all of the “classic” elements of the genre are just too interesting to get rid of entirely. These things add flavour and drama to the genre, even if they can’t be relied upon entirely these days.

So, in addition to this, you need to look at either current concerns about technology and/or your own concerns about technology. For example, the cyberpunk stories that I posted online last year mostly revolve around almost everyone spending Christmas inside a virtual reality world called “Winter Wonderland”. This allowed me to look at a few current issues.

The first was the proliferation of things like smartphones and other portable technologies. The idea that people can be on the internet literally anywhere is a relatively recent one and you only have to look at things like the “Pokemon Go” craze from last year to see that the idea of people living large parts of their lives in constructed virtual worlds isn’t exactly an impossible thing. It might be a good thing, it might be a bad thing, but it’s a thing nonetheless.

The second issue was, of course, freedom of speech. Although the internet was touted as something that could give a voice to everyone, speech on the internet has become an ever more contentious subject over the past decade.

So, setting a couple of stories in a virtual world run by a large company seemed like an interesting thing to include. Because, on many websites, people only have as many free speech rights as the website decides to give them. As the internet becomes more prominent, so will this kind of thing.

Thirdly, there’s the subject of net neutrality. This is the idea that all websites are equal and that no website should be prioritised over any other. It’s one of the central pillars of what makes the internet what it is. Without net neutrality, ISPs could make certain websites load faster than others. It would effectively put control of the internet firmly in the hands of companies with the money to pay for preferential treatment.

So, naturally, one of the major themes in my short story collection was what a futuristic “cyberpunk” version of the internet would look like without net neutrality (eg: at peak times, a limited number of wealthy sites run quickly, whilst everything else runs at a snail’s pace).

The fourth issue was, of course, the idea of technological exclusion. Thankfully, we haven’t quite reached a point where smartphone ownership is legally mandatory, or where people are issued with a social media profile at birth or anything like that.

But, the world seems to be heading in a direction where you are supposed to have the latest, shiniest technology (even though the older stuff is usually better). This was best summed up by the fact that, last year, Google’s Chrome browser refused to issue updates to anyone who wasn’t running a modern operating system. If it wasn’t for the existence of other, better, browsers then a lot of people would have been left behind. Myself included.

So, by focusing most of my stories on characters who aren’t visiting the virtual reality world that the series revolves around, I was able to look at the other side of the flashy futurism of the cyberpunk genre. Because, as technology becomes more integrated into our lives, people without the latest technology might start becoming obsolete.

So, yes, it’s still possible to write cyberpunk fiction in the modern day – however, you have to find ways to incorporate current concerns about technology and/or your own concerns into your stories.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

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Does Dystopian Science Fiction Actually Change Anything?

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Ever since I discovered the genre when I was a teenager, I’ve been a fan of dystopian science fiction. Hell, I even read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” twice when I was about thirteen or fourteen. If I remember rightly, I was absolutely fascinated by the ominously mysterious, yet creepily fascinating, world that the novel is set in. It was a little bit like the vintage 1970s-90s horror novels I enjoyed reading at the time, but it also contained sci-fi too.

Not only that, the cyberpunk genre has been one of those “dystopian” types of science fiction that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time. In fact, I read my first cyberpunk novel when I was about twelve ( one of the “Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers” books, I can’t remember which one) without even realising that it was cyberpunk.

Since then, I’ve had something of an on and off fascination with the genre. Most recently, I’ve become fascinated with the genre again because it has proven to be an amazing source of artistic inspiration (like in this recent sci-fi comedy comic of mine).

The cyberpunk genre is often labelled as dystopian science fiction and, whilst there are certainly dystopian stories, films, books, games etc.. in the cyberpunk genre, it never really feels “dystopian”. Not only does the cyberpunk genre often feature breathtakingly beautiful neon-lit cities, but it often includes enough intriguing background details and dark humour to offset any depressingly “dystopian” elements of the genre.

The most recent example of this that I’ve seen is in a computer game called “Technobablyon” that I mentioned yesterday. I’d played some more of it and found myself playing a part of the game (that involves solving a grisly murder) that should have been disturbingly horrific. However, thanks to the dialogue from the characters and the sheer weirdness of the solution to the mystery, this part of the game was more of a hilariously farcical dark comedy than a disturbing glimpse at where a technology-filled future could lead:

Talking of dark comedy, a while before I played this part of the game, I was curious about another work of dystopian science fiction – Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror” TV series. I’d been vaguely thinking about getting it on DVD since it was something that should have appealed to me – given my cynical sense of humour. Yet, when I read a few plot summaries on Wikipedia, I realised that it was actually serious dystopian science fiction…. and not in a fun way.

The story outlines I’d read seemed depressingly bleak and genuinely frightening. Even a mere description of some of the technology-based storylines in the series filled me with a real sense of paranoid dread. It was probably where technology might lead to in the future, and it terrified me. This is, of course, what dystopian science fiction is supposed to do.

It’s supposed to show the audience where the future could lead, in the hope that the audience will somehow prevent such a terrible future from coming true.

But, it doesn’t work. When I read those descriptions, I realised that there was literally nothing I could do to prevent any kind of dystopian future. I mean, it’s a long-standing joke that governments don’t see “Nineteen-Eighty Four” as a warning, but as a manual. Extending surveillance (and censorship too) seems to be part of the psyche of many major political parties, so it happens regardless of which one wins an election. The left and the right are just as bad as each other in this regard.

Dystopian science fiction is supposed to be like a vaccine – giving people a small dose of something terrible in the hope that it will prevent something even worse from happening in the future. But, this comes with the assumption that people can actually prevent worse things from happening.

In a more optimistic age, when real news mattered more than fake news, when people cared more about things like free speech and privacy, when people debated ideas instead of being lost in filter bubbles and the many left-wing/right-wing echo chambers on the internet etc… this might have been true.

But, in this modern world, dystopian science fiction is just another genre of entertainment. It can be a really cool one, or it can be an extremely depressing one. But, I think that the argument that it can actually change the world for the better has long since been proven wrong.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Random Thoughts About “Unfiltered” Creativity – A Ramble

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A while before I wrote this article, I was watching the special features on the UK DVD edition of season one of “Twin Peaks”. During an interview with someone who worked on the series, a description of the series’ writer/director (David Lynch) really stuck in my mind. The description was about how Lynch didn’t really have a “filter” when expressing himself.

Initially, this reminded me of one of the problems that I’ve noticed since I started posting art, comics etc.. online. Namely that I slowly seem to have developed one of these filters. As regular readers of this blog know, despite being anti-censorship, I often tend to self-censor quite a bit for all sorts of reasons.

But, despite the fact that virtually everything I produce is (to use an American phrase) a lot more “PG-13” than it used to be in the late 2000s/early 2010s, I don’t feel as uninspired as I perhaps should.

Some of this is probably due to my changing attitudes towards telling “serious” stories (in short, “depressing for the sake of depressing” doesn’t really appeal to me as much as it used to). Likewise, the limitations of things like website content policies can sometimes make me think more creatively too. Plus, of course, it has taught me the power of subtle suggestion, implication and more ambiguous visual storytelling.

So, having one of those “filters” doesn’t mean that you can’t be creative -even if it does somewhat reduce the range of creativity available to you.

But, I also miss the days when artists, writers and film-makers were almost expected to be “unfiltered”.

I mean, take the movie “Blade Runner” for example. It is a visual masterpiece. It’s a philosophical treatise on humanity, the meaning of life and the inevitability of death. It’s a morally-ambiguous film that will probably make you sympathise more with the ‘villain’ than the ‘hero’. It’s a film where the characters are both superficial and extremely deep at the same time. It’s a film which will reward you with something new every time you watch it. It’s a film that has inspired many other people and will probably inspire you if you’re an artist or a writer. It is, quite simply one of the best films – if not the best – ever made.

And, yet, by modern standards, it would probably fall foul of the “filter” mentioned at the beginning of this article for a huge variety of subtle reasons.

In a way, I think that the modern expectation for things to be more ‘filtered’ ignores why people watch films, read fiction, play games etc.. It’s for escapism from ‘ordinary life’. It’s to live other lives vicariously. It’s a safe outlet for our more ‘primitive’ instincts. It’s to make ourselves feel a particular emotion (eg: laughter, fear etc..).

It’s to explore all manner of fascinating places without even leaving home. It’s either to make ourselves think or to give ourselves a break from thinking. It’s to learn more about the parts of ourselves (and humanity in general) that the mainstream doesn’t teach us about. It’s to experience life ‘turned up to eleven’. It’s to add new places to the vast worlds of our imaginations.

Usually, these kinds of things are emotionally-intense in pleasant or unpleasant ways. This, of course, goes against the whole idea of a ‘filter’. The idea that everything should be completely bland and inoffensive. The idea that everything should be suitable for everyone, because modern people supposedly don’t have the intelligence to discern whether something is really their sort of thing or not (and to ignore it if it isn’t).

In short, the best creative works often need to be “unfiltered” to some level or another. They need to be free to evoke strong emotions. They need to be free to let us explore ideas, situations etc.. that we may never encounter in everyday life. Creative works need to be able to shock, to amuse, to horrify, to provoke thought etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Editorial: London Attack – Why You Shouldn’t Let It Scare You

[Note: [3:53pm GMT] Sorry about even more updates/amendments to this post but I thought that I should update it after seeing more news coverage.]
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I don’t usually write about current events on here but, earlier this morning, I read about the horrific attack in London. My first reaction was, of course, shock and fear. This sort of thing doesn’t happen here in Britain! I know people from London, and people who have visited the city recently! And that sort of thing. My mind flashed back to the news coverage of the 7/7 attacks from 11-12 years ago.

But, the more I read about the attack, the more I realised that – as tragic and unforgivably outrageous as it was – Britain is still one of the safest countries on the planet when it comes to this sort of thing. It’s natural to be shocked and disgusted by what happened. But, you shouldn’t let the actions of one evil man scare you. This is why.

For starters, this was the first major attack to take place (in Britain) in 11-12 years. There has been more than a decade where no major attacks of this type have happened here. As horrific as it is, it is very much the exception rather than the rule. Attacks like this one are shocking because they are incredibly rare. There are many, many more days when something like this doesn’t happen than there are when something like this does.

Secondly, from what I read, the criminal was prevented from using a bomb for the simple reason that our security services are some of the best in the world when it comes to detecting and stopping bomb plots. Although this evil bastard still caused a lot of harm, he was thankfully prevented from causing much more harm due to the fact that we have highly-experienced security services who are really, really good at stopping things like this (again, no major attacks in 11-12 years!).

Thirdly, the police did their job perfectly. One brave policeman gave his life to protect others and, thanks to lots of preventative planning, there were also armed officers stationed outside parliament who prevented the killer from entering the building. There were well-equipped (and, more importantly, properly trained) police officers ready and waiting to stop something like this turning into something far worse.

Likewise, the murderer actually had to leave his car before his attempted attack on parliament due to the fact that parliament was already well-protected against vehicle attacks, thanks to it’s fences and barriers. All of this shows that our police and security services are some of the best in the world when it comes to mitigating or, much more commonly, completely preventing atrocities like this. So, don’t be afraid. We’re well-protected.

Fourthly, and I know that this is probably a touchy subject for some of my American readers, it’s reassuring to note that the killer didn’t have a gun. Thanks to our strict firearms laws, a man intent on mass murder was only able to get his hands on knives and a car. Yes, he unfortunately still murdered several people (and injured many others). But, he would have probably murdered many more if he had been carrying a gun. Thankfully, the only people with guns there were highly-trained police officers with years of regular firearms practice. So, Britain is safer than many other places because mass murderers can’t get hold of guns easily.

Finally, violent religious radicals (which, from everything in the news since my last update to this article, the attacker seems to be) are very much the exception rather than the rule.

For every violent religious fanatic, there are hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of perfectly ordinary non-violent, non-fanatical people who follow that particular religion. Statistically, violent religious extremists are thankfully very rare.

So, whilst it’s perfectly ok to hate the individual person who committed this crime, don’t make the stupid mistake of hating or fearing whole groups of people – almost all of whom are perfectly ordinary and innocent, just like anyone else ( and who probably hate him as much as everyone else does).

Terrorists thrive on creating fear and panic. This is one reason why I was reluctant to use the (scary) word “terrorism” earlier in this editorial. But, historically speaking, there isn’t too much to be scared by these days. Compared to the frequent IRA terrorist attacks during Britain’s relatively recent past, compared to the atrocious Admiral Duncan bombing in 1999, compared to the horror of the 7/7 attacks in 2005 etc.. we are living in one of the safest times in modern British history. This recent attack was horrific, but it’s far from the worst that Britain has ever endured. We are safer now than we were then.

We are living in an age where these things are shocking because they don’t usually happen. Even twenty or thirty years ago (or even 11-12 years ago), this wouldn’t quite have been the case. Don’t let the disgusting actions of one evil man trick you into being scared. Yes, something terrible has happened – but Britain is safe.

Don’t let the terrorists scare you, don’t let them win. In the words of that famous poster, keep calm and carry on.

Why Realism Is Pointless – A Ramble

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The day before I wrote this article, I happened to see a video review of an old computer game called “Jones In The Fast Lane”. This was a stylised electronic board game from the 1990s that is supposed to be based on real life.

Despite the game’s quirky humour, shortcuts, 1990s stuff, game mechanics etc.. it was obviously meant to be at least slightly “realistic”. And, my god, what a boring game it seemed to be!

This, naturally, made me think about the subject of realism in art, stories, comics, computer games, movies, TV shows etc… and why it should be avoided like the plague!

For all of the interesting things that happen (and have happened) in the world – 99% of the time, life is boring. It’s mundane. It’s repetitive. It’s dreary. If it wasn’t, then the world wouldn’t contain more novels than any one person could ever hope to read, more movies than one person could ever hope to watch, more games than any one person could hope to play etc…

I mean, there’s a good reason why even traditional soap operas have to add lots of ridiculously melodramatic storylines, arguments etc.. to their depictions of everyday life. If they were a lot more “realistic”, then they’d be ten times more dull than they already are.

Even with this, their storylines seem annoyingly dreary, trite, mawkish, tawdry, depressing, melodramatic etc… when compared to technically similar TV shows that are set in more imaginative locations ( “Game Of Thrones” springs to mind for starters).

When a TV show puts the effort into creating an entirely imaginary fictional world that is interesting because it’s different from the real world, then it can get away with “soap opera”-like storylines because of all of the extra “unrealistic” imaginative stuff that clearly says “this is a story! It isn’t even pretending to be like real life!”

Even comics and cartoons that are set in “realistic” locations are often interesting because of their unrealistic elements – their stylised art, their exaggerated characters etc…

Whether you’re part of the audience or the person creating it – stories, art, games etc… are timelessly interesting because they allow us to either escape from reality or to reshape it in some way or another.

This is best summed up by an awesome quote from a short story called “An Extra Smidgen Of Eternity” by Robert Rodi (which can be found in an anthology called “The Sandman: Book Of Dreams” Edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer).

Although the story itself will probably make you cry, and the ending won’t make complete sense unless you’ve read the fifth “Sandman” comic, it contains one of the best quotes about creativity and imagination that I’ve ever read.

The quote is: “Stories are hope. They take you out of yourself for a bit, and when you get dropped back in, you’re different – you’re stronger, you’ve seen more, you’ve felt more. Stories are like spiritual currency.”

All forms of creativity allow us to either give our own imaginations physical form, or to see the contents of other people’s imaginations. Imagination is one of the many things that stops the mundane repetitiveness of everyday life from becoming emptily depressing.

Merely copying reality doesn’t take much imagination and it doesn’t really give that much to the imaginations of the audience. So, yes, “realism” is totally and utterly pointless!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Four Reasons Why The Censorship Of Art Is A Terrible Idea

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Well, it’s been a while since I wrote about censorship. But, after reading a news article [Not safe for work… possibly] last summer about a satirical mural over in Australia (depicting the then-US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as a particular type of dancer, presumably as a comment about financing in politics) which was subject to official censorship, I thought that I’d look at a few of the many reasons why art probably shouldn’t be censored.

1) Liberal or conservative, it’s still the same: Going back to the example I linked to, although the authorities’ motivations for censoring the art were ostensibly “liberal”, the practical effects and consequences of the censorship are just the same as when conservatives have managed to ban risquΓ© things that they disagree with. An image was altered or removed due to the direct actions of those in authority.

Of course, although there are one of two obvious exceptions (eg: art that directly and genuinely advocates acts of violence etc…), most forms of official censorship don’t really meet this moral criteria and seem more similar to acts of vandalism. And, like with vandalism, it doesn’t matter if the vandal is a liberal or a conservative, the effects are still the same.

2) It’s unfair to uncensored artists: Most types of art that get censored are often flawed in one way or another. They’re often either brilliant on an artistic level, but mediocre on an ideas level or vice versa.

For example, whilst the high level of artistic skill in the uncensored version of the controversial satirical mural cannot be called into question, some people might question the sophistication or originality of making a political point by likening a politician to a dancer in a sleazy bar (although this is hardly justifiable grounds for the mural to be banned).

But, as soon as something is censored, it immediately becomes interesting. It gets debated by lots of people. It prompts people with opinions about censorship (like me) to write articles about it. The Streisand effect kicks in and something that may have only been seen by a few hundred people is seen by millions worldwide.

One unfortunate side-effect of this is that thousands of better or more sophisticated works of art immediately get overlooked as a result of everyone focusing on the banned picture etc…

3) It has a chilling effect: Thankfully, nothing that I’ve made has ever been official censored. This isn’t to say that my work has never suffered any censorship, it’s just that it ironically has always been carried out by none other than me. There are paintings I’ve never made, comics I’ve altered, articles I’ve replaced with something else before publication, topics I’ve avoided altogether etc.. due to the fear of some kind of external censorship.

Censorship (whether it’s done by conservatives, liberals, religious believers, atheists, anti-feminists, feminists, one person in authority, large numbers of people etc…) is a weapon of intimidation. The real intent of a lot of censorship isn’t just to destroy one particular work of art, but to tell everyone that no-one else should dare to make anything similar.

4) It makes everyone less human!: Most of the people who call for art to be censored don’t understand what art actually is.

Art, at it’s core, is a way for an artist to share part of their imagination with everyone else. It’s a medium of communication. Even if it’s the most apolitical work of art ever made, it’s still technically an idea in physical form (after all, the artist had to think about how to make that particular piece of art).

As I’ve argued before, censorship is a type of thought control. If you tell someone that they can’t paint something, you also tell them that they can’t think about it. And, well, our minds are the last truly free space that everyone has. To infringe upon that is to make everyone less human as a result.

So, if you see a piece of art that you dislike for whatever reason, then either ignore it in a sensible and mature way (after all, you’ve probably ignored thousands of ideas you disagree with without even noticing). Or, respond to it with measured, polite, well-argued criticism that respects the artist’s right to express their ideas. Because if they have no right to express their ideas, then neither do you!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Making Impulsive Creative Projects – A Ramble

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Last summer, I had a moment when I just had to make a political cartoon. I hadn’t really planned it beforehand (the only planning involved how to turn the cynical mental images that had suddenly appeared in my mind into a coherent comic) or even wanted to make it, I just had to make it.

It was, of course, in response to the “it would be hilariously funny if it wasn’t real” news that Boris Johnson had been appointed (UK) foreign secretary….

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "BORIS Is The New FOREIGN SECRETARY!?!?! WTF?" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “BORIS Is The New FOREIGN SECRETARY!?!?! WTF?” By C. A. Brown

This, of course, brings me on to the subject of impulsive creative projects. These are projects that suddenly emerge from strong emotions, feelings or reactions. They’re unplanned and they’re often some of the best things that you’ll ever make.

It doesn’t matter how uninspired you were beforehand, as soon as something compels you to make one of these projects, you’ll have more inspiration than you could want. Ok, they’re usually created in response to bad things (eg: using dark humour to cope with terrible political news) but they often feel amazing to make regardless, in a similar way to a highly inspired project.

Not only that, impulsive projects serve as a sudden test of your writing and/or artistic abilities too. Quite a few years ago, whenever something prompted me to make a sudden cartoon, it often wasn’t fit for publication. The politics was often too heavy-handed or the emotional content was too blatant.

It’s only after spending over a year making comics semi-regularly again that I’ve reached the stage when I feel like any impulsive projects I make are actually good enough for publication.

This, interestingly, brings me on to one of the most confusing elements of impulsive projects. Although you primarily make the project for yourself, it often has to be something that is good enough to share. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with making private projects for emotional catharsis, one of the most powerful things about making impulsive cartoons is the powerful feeling of sharing your views with the world.

The thing to remember here of course is that, regardless of which emotions motivate you, you need to add some humour, theatricality, artistic skill and/or serious commentary. After all, other people have to look at it too.

This is especially true for impulsive projects that have been motivated by anger. For example, during John Whittingdale’s (thankfully brief) tenure as culture secretary last year, I was absolutely incensed by the fact that he planned to weaken the BBC (in order to strengthen commercial channels, bastions of quality programming that they are…), so I made this angry cartoon:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Editorial Cartoon - Our 'Culture' Secretary!" By C. A. Brown [1st May 2016]

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Editorial Cartoon – Our ‘Culture’ Secretary!” By C. A. Brown [1st May 2016]

Thankfully, I had enough artistic experience to present this opinion in a slightly toned down way. I knew enough about colour theory to add a menacing blue/red colour scheme to the painting. I was able to use visual metaphors in the background to make a point about the two different types of TV stations. Not only that, I was able to make him look a bit like a pantomime villain through subtle facial expressions.

A few years ago, when my knowledge of all of these things was less sophisticated, I’d have probably just drawn something ridiculously crass or extremely unsophisticated, before wisely deciding not to post it online. So, yes, being able to make even vaguely acceptable impulsive projects is a tough test of your creative skills.

But, all of this aside, impulsive projects are one of the best types of creative projects because they feel like pure self-expression. Rather than just speaking about your feelings or writing an online comment about them, spontaneously turning your strong feelings into an actual thing seems like a much more cathartic and powerful form of self-expression.

Just remember that, if you’re going to publish it, it should be something that other people will actually want to look at.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚