On Watching Avatar.

Ayn Rand said, "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." And nowhere is this more true than in the field of entertainment. Once upon a time you could only properly experience a movie by going to the cinema; now, civilization has provided us with wide-screen TV and DVD players so that we can enjoy films in the privacy of our own homes instead of watching them in a room full of idiots all chatting, sending text messages and shovelling buckets of popcorn into their stupid faces.

But since I don't have a 3D telly I headed off to the Vue cinema in Plymouth to see James Cameron's Avatar the other day, and to be honest the experience wasn't too bad. True, the strangely shaped seat has done something 'orrible to my cervical vertebrae, and it was sometimes hard to tell whether the peripheral rustling noises were made by beasties lurking in the alien undergrowth or just fat people in the row behind going for another fix of Butterkist, but by and large the film was good enough to distract me from these minor irritations. I like sci-fi movies, but they seem to have been stuck in a visual rut for the past couple of decades, all trying to look like Blade Runner and Alien(s)*. For the next twenty years, I suspect, sci-fi movies will all try to look like Avatar.

Now the smart thing to say about Avatar is that the effects are brilliant, but the story is weak. Actually I thought the story was perfectly serviceable. So what if it's just Dances With Wolves with blue giants instead of native Americans? It does the trick, and if there was was anything new in it it might divert our attention from the flora and fauna of Pandora, the lush extra-solar moon on which it all takes place. And that would be a pity, because the Pandoran f&f is wonderfully conceived and visualised. There are feathery, bioluminescent seeds like airborne jellyfish, giant ferns, glow-in-the-dark foliage and hammer-headed rhino-dino thingies. There are some pack-hunting predators which look like six-legged wolfhounds made from wet asphalt**, and some winsome hunter-gatherers who seem to have evolved along pretty much human lines, except that they are taller, blue, and have no nipples (a useful adaptation which allows them to run around topless without compromising their 12A certificate). And they all live together in a nicely-thought-out ecosystem amid a landscape which seems to be a cross between the Amazon rainforest and the sleeve of a Yes album.

Where Avatar does seem weak to me is in the simplistic way that it rehashes the myth of the Noble Savage. Ever since the Age of Reason dawned, western society has been haunted by a lingering suspicion that the world we are making for ourselves is Not Natural, and is therefore Bad. Wouldn't we better off if we had stayed as simple farmers or hunter-gatherers, living lives in tune with nature in an unspoiled landscape? Well, a moment's reflection should tell us that no, we bleedin' well wouldn't; the lives of 'indigenous peoples' may look picturesque to us, but they tend to be brief, uncomfortable and rather short on things like dentistry, medicine and personal freedom. This is one reason why so many of the people on this planet who actually live such lives tend to chuck them in when they think they have a chance of acquiring penicillin and MP3 players***. But happily for us, our wicked industrial civilization has finally produced a technology which can transport to us for a few hours to another world, whose natives are just as keen on the idea of the simple life as we are, and ride flying dragon-y things which can take down our helicopter gunships.

It would be silly to blame James Cameron for weaving his film out of our daydreams of Eden - after all, he does it so well. But Avatar would be a better film if the protagonist's choice were harder. Will he join those lovely touchy-feely forest people in their giant tree? Or will he stick with his own side, who live in a computerized firebase beside an oil refinery? Ooh, decisions, decisions... which might seem genuinely difficult ones if only we were given some hint that the Pandorans lost half their children to preventable diseases, for instance, or that their gender-equality isn't all it might be, or that it isn't really a good thing to have to live your whole life in public, ruled by the laws of your tribe.

*In some ways, with its gung-ho space marines and non-stop action, Avatar feels like a sequel to Aliens... and a much better one than the lousy Alien 3.

**Ah, Asphalt Wolfhound; now they were a good band...

***They may find that the penicillin and MP3 players are not forthcoming and that they've traded their life in a forest for life in a slum, but that's another story.

Apocalypse, schmapocalypse...

A lot of people who have never read Mortal Engines have found cause to mention it on the internet just lately, and while I'm always glad of free publicity it's mildly disconcerting to see that it's being bracketed as a 'post-apocalyptic' story. The same was true at the ALA in Boston last week; lots of nice people seemed keen to hear about Fever Crumb, but they all described it as being set in a 'post apocalyptic world'.

Well, clearly the WOME* is post-apocalyptic, but I never really thought of it in those terms; to me, 'post-apocalyptic' means Mad Max, or Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning gloom-fest The Road: stories set in the aftermath of armegeddon, where men are men and sets are cheap and people reduced to the level of savages are grubbing about in the ruins. The Mortal Engines books weren't meant to be like that at all. I wanted to write about a rich and strange new world, but I felt it important to keep it connected to our own world so that, however strange it got, it would still have familiar place-names and references to anchor it to reality**. The simplest way to do that was to say that this was the far future and that that our own civilization was over and gone. And the simplest way of getting our civilization out of the way was to say that there had been a big old war. But the war happens so long before the events of the books, and so much else has happened in the intervening ages, that it's not something which my characters tend to fret about much***. It's just a past event which helped to shape their world, in much the same way as ours was shaped by, say, the last ice age.

But I guess you can't give a snappy summing-up of a book by calling it 'post-post-post-post-post apocalyptic'. Besides, it's a bit of a boom-time for the apocalypse at the mo, so perhaps I shouldn't complain about being dragged onto the bandwagon. There's The Road, (Now a Major Motion Picture, for anyone who wasn't quite depressed enough by the book) and a forthcoming Hughes Brothers movie called The Book of Eli, which looks like Mad Max with a side-order of that ol' time religion. Then there all those CGI disaster-porn efforts like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, and the endless, shuffling parade of zombie movies. The dear old BBC has recently revisited The Day of the Triffids where the world is laid waste by mass-blindness and man-eating plants (catastrophes being like buses, apparently: you wait ages for one and then two come along at once), and is now squandering the licence fee on a second series of a lugubrious thing called Survivors, in which a Scary Virus wipes out everybody's acting ability.

The truth is, we never get tired of seeing the world destroyed. I suspect on some deep level most people secretly look forward to armageddon. We feel we deserve it. Christianity has long been warning us to expect the End of Days any day now, and for the godless amongst us the message has been re-packaged by modern religions like CND and the Green movement, which enjoy telling us all that we've been Very, Very Bad and if we don't mend our ways then we'll be Punished.

In fact The End Of The World is actually rather a comforting idea; a wish-fulfillment fantasy which appeals to some of our most infantile needs. We seldom imagine it ending entirely, of course; we just dream of our own complicated society being swept away and replaced (eventually) with something simpler, cleaner, purer. But in all probability, the world won't be ending anytime soon; we ourselves will die, balances of power will shift, wars and calamities will come and go, and it will all keep trundling on and on and on...

And that, I suspect, is a much more unsettling idea.

*World Of Mortal Engines. Oh yes.

**Besides, if you set things in completely made-up worlds you have to use completely made-up names and, unless you're an expert in languages like Professor Tolkein, that's almost certain to end in gibberish. (Mace Windu, anyone?)

***Except, of course, when some dire 21st Century weapon-system gets dug up or reactivated, which admittedly seems to happen on a fairly regular basis...


This is my first post for a while, as I spent most of last week in America, courtesy of Scholastic, who invited me over to do an event at the American Library Association's mid-winter conference in Boston, prior to the U.S. publication of Fever Crumb in April. I also spent a day in New York, which was a bit of a blur, as you can see...

It was a good trip - I suppose that statistically there must be some rude, stupid and obnoxious Americans, but the ones I met were, without exception, generous, witty and charming. But now that I'm home again I find that I don't have many traveller's tales to tell, since I spent most of the time eating or talking. So here are some photographs instead.

Look What I Found...

One of my favourite ever Mortal Engines pictures, done by an excellent artist and illustrator named Alice Duke. Anna and the Jenny Haniver didn't look exactly like this in my mind when I was writing the book, but if I could have seen Ms Duke's painting first, they would have. I hope she won't mind me posting it here. Do take a look at some of her other work, at her website www.aliceduke.com .