Mars blog: reasons to look up with awe and pride

What with Trump, and climate change, and Brexit, and Putin, and post-truth, and homelessness, and a million other problems to worry us, it’s easy to let it all get you down. Fear not: the Friday blog is here to rescue you from the doldrums. Take a look at this picture and feel the wonder course through your veins.

This is a lake of ice, it’s bigger than the London Orbital, it’s a mile deep at its centre, and it’s on Mars. And if that doesn’t set your pulse racing, you don’t have one.

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William Goldman: Ichabod, Ichabod

“Movies have to move. That’s why they’re called movies.” Hilarious. What a piss-taker. Evidence:

It worked, though – and for that, for breaking even his own rules, we salute Mr William Golding. What lie did he tell?

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Friday transdimensional blog: it doesn’t have to make sense

This didn’t:

David Mamet also eschews backstory, character histories, taxicab scenes and explanations of any kind that don’t work with the plot. Mamet’s take is that if the audience really need to know it, they’ll make it up, since that’s what people are good at. The endings of 2001 and Inception are good examples – if people are talking about the endings, they’re talking about the films – as are the start of Interstellar (how did we get here?) and just about everything ever filmed by Tarkovsky. On the other hand, all irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension.

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Three impossible things before Brexit

To misquote Alice in Wonderland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and the Crown’s too-many-to-mention other dependencies must achieve three impossible things before Brexit next Spring. The three are resolving the economic, the political, and the logical contradictions inherent in the process.

The economic irresolvables are most important, in my opinion, but they’re also the simplest to explain: a “hard” Brexit will result in an economic collapse the like of which Britain hasn’t seen in living memory, or perhaps ever. A “soft” Brexit won’t be so bad: we’ll probably have the resources to be able to cook the rats before we have to eat them. I think all that’s widely accepted, I don’t think anyone credible on either side disagrees with that prognosis. It seems the Brexiteers’ response is rather: so be it, it’s a price worth paying for – well, whatever it is we’re leaving for.

The political arguments around democracy – well, there’s two opinions on that, and they divide almost entirely along leave/ remain lines. When something divides so neatly, it means both sides are being ideological. However, I’d add that the last time London had 1% of the whole country’s population on its streets pleading with a prime minister to reconsider was Tony Blair over Iraq – and we all know who turned out to be right then, don’t we?

The logical problem is least important, but gets the most press because there’s not really any wiggle-room with logic, you can’t really haggle with it. So the outcome is starkest – there really is no way of avoiding it. Here’s the argument:

  1. Any agreement must keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and the Single Market for goods. The Republic of Ireland insists on it – and they have a veto on the final agreement in the EU – and the Good Friday agreement depends on it.
  2. The DUP will not accept NI being in CU and SM for goods while Great Britain isn’t (and neither will the Tories, for it will lead to breakup of the UK).
  3. The EU will not accept Britain being in the SM for goods but not for services (which in any case, is the thing Britain should be in the SM for, since it’s our strength). This is because it breaks their four freedoms, which they were prepared to do for NI for the sake of Good Friday but won’t extend to Britain as a whole.
  4. Therefore any agreement must keep the whole of Britain in the CU and the SM for both goods and services – effectively what we already had in the EU.
  5. The Tory ultras will not accept Britain being in the SM and the CU, and because they can trigger a leadership challenge, neither can May.

Seems to me the only logical way out of this pentalemma is having no agreement, a hard border, pissing both Ireland and the EU off, abandoning the Good Friday agreement (which is probably the DUP’s plan anyway), and throwing ourselves on the mercy of other countries that have no reason to help us and maybe long memories of what we did to them when they were the ones asking for mercy – that seems the only logical solution. It means it’s back to eating uncooked rats, but apparently they taste like chicken so that’s all right.

Edited to add:

Here’s a couple of interesting links I’ve come across. The LRB give a comprehensive (but dry) list of the consequences of hard brexit at, while the always amicable Craig Murrey agrees that the DUP and the Ultras would regard the collapse of the Good Friday agreement as a good thing at

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CIA chief (or is she?): how spies use disguises

Wired has an amazing video by the chief of disguises at the CIA – yes, that really is a job. There’s a lot of good spy tradecraft in the film if that’s the type of fiction you write, and the stuff about how her make-up specialists can easily make a woman look like a man but not visa-versa is… psychologically counter-intuitive, I guess, at least for me (I live in Brighton). And since I do live in the cosplay capital of Europe, I’ll be spreading her quick-change trick around my friends: imagine changing your complete appearance in twenty-five seconds! (Mind you, I do have one friend who changes her partner about that fast.)

Here’s the link:

One particularly salutary tip for writers is the spy chief’s emphasis on agents looking natural in their environment. Now, we’re all used to giving our characters mannerisms, affectations, or tics, and sometimes that’s just something we have in our notebooks that we fancied using and that seems to vaguely inform their personality: the stressed-out woman who’s always tapping her fingers and doesn’t even notice she’s doing it, for example; or the gourmet man whose sneezes explode so loudly everyone in the restaurant turns to look. On rare occasions these mannerisms might affect the plot – and those are the best stories, of course – but generally speaking they’re only there to round or colour the characters.

All this can be done subtly, and – through the homeopathy of the unconscious, where less really can be more – is actually better done that way. In the video, the spy says that Americans tend to stand leaning on one leg, while Europeans don’t; Americans (and Britishers) hold their cigarette sticking out, while Europeans pinch it and point it downwards. Little things like that make a difference, and onlookers will unconsciously notice and process them and prejudge people based on them; but then would be hard pressed to say afterwards what there was about the person that made them think the way they do. The actor – and apparently the spy – has to know all this. Writers tend not to, but since their medium is more aural than visual, they need to find aural ways of doing the same thing. We all depend on this prejudice, a bad thing in law and society but essential in fiction and drama. For example, imitating accent with phonetics (see image). That might be regarded as a bit patronising these days – more seriously, it is a bit cliched -, but there are plenty of other clues you can use.

All this comes back to what I mean by “Martian” on this blog. Professional actors look at their fellows’ performances and notice things like stance and mannerisms and tics that no one else in the audience see, and they notice the actor is doing them deliberately to create an impression. Presumably real professional spies also look at the world differently – when they’re not leaping from helicopters onto plane wings, of course (real spies do do that, don’t they?). And serious writers have to look at the people around them and do the same. We don’t have the luxury of normal human interaction, we have to be constantly thinking of psychological causation and ulterior motives and guessing at relationships we don’t know about. And we have to be watching every second – watching and stealing. Fun is for other people: we have work to do.

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Mars blog: bits of mars have landed on earth

… but then you already knew that…

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David Thomson: watch it again

David Thomson’s utterly brilliant How to Watch a Movie:

For most of the medium’s history, movies were made to be seen once, or as many times as you could cram into a brief run… By 1955 I had been told about Citizen Kane; I had read of it in the few film books that existed back then. But [I] couldn’t see it: old films seldom came back. For all we knew they were lost.

But for at least thirty years now [technology] has turned movies into things that can be seen and seen again… If you see a movie just once, that keeps faith with it being sensational, sudden, yet as drastic as a road accident. But if you go back to watch it… many more times, you’re allowing that it may be art or ritual…

Film-makers can be so clever today: they can put references in that the viewer will only notice on the nth viewing (as Welles did, anachronistically). That’s liberated them as writers and directors, but the price of entry is that they have to make it worth their audiences’ time to watch it more than once. That’s the story of modern TV, right there.

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Friday word blog: Tsundere

Tsundere (ツンデレ, pronounced [tsɯndeɾe]) is a Japanese term for a character development process that describes a person who is initially cold (and sometimes even hostile) before gradually showing a warmer, friendlier side over time. The word is derived from the terms tsun tsun (ツンツン), meaning to turn away in disgust, and dere dere (デレデレ) meaning to become ‘lovey dovey’.

Writers from Mars would be so easy in Japanese!

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How patterns work: the butterfly effect

Here’s a story template, with hero “Alice”. (I normally name characters in a template alphabetically: Alice, Bob, Charlie, etc.)

  1. Alice lives in a small community that is dependent on a single source of income (typically tourism);
  2. Alice has some special knowledge or insight which indicates some specific health danger to residents and tourists;
  3. Alice raises concerns about the danger in the community and proposes some action which will alleviate it, but at considerable cost (for example, by scaring tourists away, or by cost of repairs);
  4. The community rejects Alice’s advice;
  5. Alice turns out to be right – people die;
  6. Alice fixes the danger in some other way, but at great personal risk or expense.

This is the pattern of Peter Benchley’s Jaws and (with interesting differences) of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. It’s a very good pattern, and infinitely applicable: a coastguard in a tourist town in the seventies vs a killer shark, a doctor in a tourist town in C19th Norway vs a water borne disease, numerous disaster movies, and in short every single story where someone, somewhere about a third of the way through, screams “the Daleks/ giant ants/ tsunami/ triffids/ plague/ terrorists are coming: you have to evacuate now“. And, inevitably, no one listens.

Let’s call this pattern “Cassandra”. It’s a pattern that plays a little with reality – Alice is saying one thing, and everyone else is saying another, so perhaps she is simply mad? – but also with every individual’s common everyday conflict between their own ego and society’s demands. It’s also a pattern that is popular in the United States, for reasons I suspect are basically psychohistorical. (No coincidence they have their own form of killer shark, and he has orange hair).

Now, one of the things we do on Writers from Mars is to take story patterns and see how they can be varied. For example, suppose we change point 5, and have the hero turn out to be wrong? Suddenly the story is cynical, dark, antidemocratic: the maniac who sees dangers where there are none, and jeopardises other’s safety or wealth in pursuit of their delusions. There’s traces of this in Enemy, since it’s never completely proven the town’s baths really are polluted, or at least it’s never widely accepted. Stockmann’s (the hero’s) character and motivations must become more questionable to accommodate this: he is much more egotistical, even almost relishing his isolation, than Brody in Jaws. Nothing you could convict him of, but you catch a word here or there and suddenly he doesn’t seem so sincere. So changing point 5 necessitates changing the whole character of the hero.

Or consider the Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan[1]. Foster’s son is kidnapped midflight and nobody believes she even had him with her when she boarded – apparently, in Hollywood, airlines don’t keep passenger lists. Anyhow, she becomes more and more desperate, putting the safety of the plane itself at risk before uncovering a monstrous plan to crash the plane into – well, wherever, I can’t remember because the only important thing is that it’s monstrous. Foster foils the plot and saves her son – who, monstrously, is tied in the plane’s nose cone, so that he will die half a second before anyone else – how evil is that? At the end, as Foster, exhausted, carries her son through the throng of passengers that she’d just saved, an awed and contrite fellow passenger – one who had doubted the son’s existence and the mother’s sanity – whispers “she knew she was right.” Jesus, there is so much I could write about America just from that line! “It knew it was right.”

But suppose the movie is slightly different – and Foster is wrong, she only had delusions of having a son, there was no hijack, and she nearly crashes the plane out of madness. Is that even a story? Perhaps, if you leave the reality of the delusion open until the end. Suddenly you’re in that episode of the Twilight Zone – you know, the one everyone has seen – where William Shatner is looking out his window on the plane and sees a supernatural figure dismantling the wing. He gets help, no one else can see the gremlin (except the viewer), he gets more and more urgent, smashes a window, the plane has to land, he’s carted off to the looney bin. As he goes, an engineer examining the wing says that it was loose, so it was lucky the plane did land; but the engineer doesn’t know why the plane had to land, and so Shatner is doomed. He’s thrown his life away but – maybe? – saved everyone else.

Brody in Jaws, Stockmann in Enemy, Jody Foster in Flightplan – they all knew they were right (although, as I say, it’s unclear whether Stockmann was right to think he was right). William Shatner, on the other hand, had gone mad, so he presumably didn’t know he was right, even though it’s hinted that he was!

Next: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s two versions of this classic, and the remake is at least as good as the original. But there’s a salutary difference: in the 1956 version, the hero escapes his community, warns the authorities, and – because of a random traffic accident – they believe him. That’s a twist on the “Cassandra” pattern: he’s finally believed, but almost when it’s too late. But in the remake in 1978, the heroine thinks she’s escaped and starts to form a resistance, only to be betrayed: the aliens have won. That’s the complete opposite, although it is still clearly Cassandra. The two are very different films, even though their template differs in only one place at the very end. That’s what happens: the logic of the template change forces fundamental structural changes throughout the whole piece, a kind of butterfly effect for stories.

It even changes the characters. Brody in Jaws thinks the beaches should be closed, everyone else thinks they should be kept open. Brody made his call because he values human life above money, everyone else theirs because the other way round. Very different to Enemy of the People, where Stockmann values his own self-importance above money, and everyone else their own self-importance over Stockmann’s. In Jaws, the story is about the shark – the clue’s in the title. In Enemy, the story is about Stockmann – the bacteria are incidental – and the clue’s in that title, too!

The tragedy of the ignored prophet: from Brexit to climate change, from the walls of Troy to Hollywood’s latest asteroid crashing into Yellowstone volcano and unleashing a swarm of killer bees, the pattern is ubiquitous. The experts who know are ignored, the result is disaster, the experts are vindicated but at such cost that they’d really rather have been wrong to start with.

The punchline is that you can take a template – any template, lifted from some other movie or book or current politics or just idly made up – change a few fundamental elements, and you have a completely different story. It’s a kind of magic wand – just wave it, and you’re in a new story, a new world.


I owe the magic wand metaphor to the supercool author James Frey – so cool he wrote a novel, called it his autobiography, and it was so realistic people sued him when they found out he’d made it up. In my opinion, he should have got a special award for verisimilitude. Anyhow, I plan to come back to Frey’s remarkable idea of the “premiss”.


[1] To Earthlings, Flightplan is simply a bad movie, but to us martians, there’s no such thing as good or bad, only interesting or not. So check it out.

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A heap of broken images

Well, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, assorted dependencies and quasi-colonies – and, if you want to confuse a foreigner, ask them which has the more land area, Britain or Great Britain? – is at this moment undergoing a masochistic form of self-immolation that, for conciseness, we refer to as “Brexit”. Actually, we had a good run, us Brits, what with all those atlases where half the globe used to be coloured pink, and the world-wide adoption of the most improbable sport ever invented – even the Americans play cricket now, I hear – and above all, the only thing Britons should tug their forelocks to, our wonderful and ubiquitous language and magnificent associated literature. We are a land where, out of choice, we drink our beer warm, and if the thought of that doesn’t make our enemies tremble, then I don’t know what will. Bye, Britain; the world will be a little less ridiculous without you, and that’s everyone’s loss.

Now, the thing about Brexit is that no matter how much evidence and argument that the experts present about the economic, financial, political, environmental and security costs of Brexit, the ultras just mutter “fake news” and “project fear” and carry on with their plans to turn the country into some kind of post-liberal low-tax minimal-state wasteland of “self-employed” baristas, Uber drivers, and investment bankers. It’s almost as if – and this is the point – they want disaster. Why would that be? How could a human want to be wrong so much that they double-down to make being wrong a national calamity rather than a personal failure? Isn’t there something here about character? Something Martian writers – who honestly don’t care if the nation’s children are hunting rats and cockroaches because they’re so hungry, providing the story is well done – could use to make their writing more credible?

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

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