Letters From Max (theatrical review)

I attended the premiere of a play in New York this week. Letters From Max: a ritual by Sarah Ruhl – she of the infamous In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) – is the story of Ruhl’s own relationship with a student (Max) who joined her writing class as an undergraduate at Yale and instantly impressed her with his humour and precocious wisdom.

Almost at once we learn that Max is having chemo for serious cancer and thus is motivated by a Damoclean threat to write well and quickly.

The play was developed from the several years of correspondence (letters, emails, texts, phone calls and even poetry) shared between student and teacher and the big question for me, going into the play, was: how does a playwright portray herself? Surely this is a mission fraught with sentimental and revisionist danger.

The danger, however, is avoided – partly by centring the play squarely on Max so that Sarah becomes almost a sidekick. The danger is also avoided by the reversal of roles as Max becomes the teacher and Sarah is the character who most palpably grows. In fact, if I do have a criticism I would have liked to see more personal growth in the Max character (perhaps through the improvement in his poetry) but he appears fully formed from the start.

The action traverses issues of faith/non-faith; afterlife and eternity; death and life with frank discussions on how to deal with someone with a terminal illness.

So is the play morbid?

Far from it. No-one since Woody Allen at his funniest and best has dealt with these issues with such intelligence, insight and humour. The writing is of the highest quality but it is the exploration of humanity that leaves the deepest impression.

From a craft perspective, the play also enters dangerous territory in a number of ways. For a start, the fourth wall is smashed. So much of the play is monologue (sometimes dialogue) directed at the audience. In the hands of a lesser writer (or cast) this could have turned into pantomime but instead we are given a window into a profound intimacy.

The highest compliment I can pay any piece of theatre is that not once did I glance at my watch (over two hours). I was immersed, absorbed, riveted for the duration and can only applaud the generation of a work that is a tribute to the genius of the playwright and superbly honours the memory of the poet, Max Ritvo.

I’d love to see this come to Australia. Memo to Belvoir Street Theatre – you should be all over this.

Letters From Max: a ritual

Written by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Kate Whoriskey

With Ben Edelman, Jessica Hecht and Zane Pais

Signature Theatre, New York

Alice Springs: Heart of Australia

There’s a major problem in the heart of Australia.

On the surface, the problem is all about alcohol – a cheap drug fuelling the anger of the dislocated and disaffected.

In reality, the problem goes far deeper than that.

*     *     *

Why would young people rampage about Alice Springs: fighting, vandalising, invading homes and thieving?

It’s claimed that many of the crimes are either alcohol fuelled or alcohol inspired and the problem is now so serious that the Prime Minister has flown in to help in its resolution.

Some are calling for a restoration of the alcohol ban that lasted (for First Nations people) in the Alice for 15 years. The relaxation of the ban, they say, is a main reason for the massive spike in antisocial behaviour.

Yet others claim the ban was, essentially, racist – targeting one race of people only and patronising them in a way that just bred even deeper resentment for the way they’ve been treated since 1788.

Depending on your perspective, there is some justification in both arguments – and that, in itself, exemplifies the problem that will not go away until we find a resolution to the dissatisfaction of our First Nations people with the socio-political condition of Australia in the C21.

*     *     *

For all my non-indigenous readers, I invite you to participate in a thought experiment (Gedankenexperiment, as Einstein called them).

Imagine you are a proud First Nations person… how likely are you to have the same opportunities in Australia as your compatriots?

Will a bank give you a mortgage?

Are you likely to be earning at least the average wage?

Do you even have a job at all beyond the more menial or dangerous occupations?

Can you walk down an ordinary street without being viewed with suspicion and apprehension?

Do you feel like an outsider in the country your ancestors inhabited over 60,000 years ago?

Do you feel equal with all other Australians?

I usually get called a smartarse when I ask these questions of white Australians, especially those who complain that “the blacks get given way too much”. My response is always: what would you rather be in Australia… white or black?

The silence is always indicative of the truth.

This is not, in any way, to condone antisocial behaviour in Alice Springs. What it is though is a suggestion that deep seated resentment of injustice and (let’s be honest) structural and endemic racism will always inspire rebellion.

Does that mean the antisocial behaviour is a political act?

I’m not qualified to answer that question but it strikes me the problem has got much worse as the debate around The Voice in the Constitution ratchets up.

We MUST approve a First Nations Voice in the Constitution.

I have, in the past, disapproved of the Voice because, as a lawyer, I believe that all Australians are equal under the Constitution and no one group should have any kind of special status.

Thing is, we’ve had over 230 years to get right the treatment of Aborigines and we’ve totally fucked it up. Accordingly, the time has come to do something extraordinary to try and reset the balance. A Voice in the Constitution is the minimum we should be doing.

If only for purely selfish reasons.

Arguing now, over the details (like that ratbag Howard who deliberately derailed the Republic debate with pettifogging carping) will only kill the referendum stone dead – which is, of course, what Dutton wants.

If we genuinely want to see a start to the healing of our country we will vote for the Voice. The details can be worked out later.

And alcohol has fuck all to do with this problem.

It’s a symptom… not a cause.

Subtext and Story: A Muse on Science Fiction #2

In my first Muse on Science Fiction, I noted that: Inevitably, all the best books can be deconstructed in accordance with whichever mirror the author is holding up to contemporary society.

By “the best” books, I mean books that are worthy of deconstruction to reveal the message the author most wishes to convey regarding the human condition within a given milieu.

That message is the subtext and can be political, socio-economic, technological, gender-based, religious/anti-religious, environmental, dealing with discrimination, injustice, or any number of other aspects of our existence the author regards as important.

The subtext can be conveyed via satire, drama, comedy, relationships etc and can be done within any genre.

Sci-fi has always been a bountiful medium for satire, because the suspension of disbelief that inevitably accompanies sci-fi can carry other suspensions in its wake. For example, if we are willing to accept that the year is 2075 and space flight at relativistic speeds is the norm, we will also accept caricatures of politics or socio-economics or particular social arrangements concomitant to that world.

I have done this in my own latest fiction, but before I get to that I’ll re-examine some of the giants of the genre.

Subtext is always reflective of the milieu in which it was generated. In my last essay, I noted the number of sci-fi books written during the Cold War which carried subtexts illuminating fear of “otherness” and warning of existential collapse.

In these current times of climate crisis, there are any number of environmental catastrophe stories, although I suspect that such stories tend to preach to the converted. Interstellar was such a story (I include movies alongside novels) but a much earlier example was Stark by Ben Elton – a satire about corporate greed responsible for the destruction of the Earth, but rather than try to reverse their depredations, the wealthy elite simply build giant spacecraft to escape the sinking ship.

A different type of corporate greed story was Avatar – on one level, a cool adventure where blue people fly about on dragons, but fundamentally it’s about the ruthless disruption of peaceful natives who happen to have something the military/industrial complex covets. Reflecting on that theme, it is hard for normal, well-adjusted people not to reflect also on the plight of real-world natives in similar predicaments – like the Sioux evacuation from the Black Hills or Australian Aborigines shunted aside to make way for the imperial British.

These faits accomplis are not about to be (fully) overturned these centuries later, but that doesn’t detract from the underlying injustice (nor from our slightly guilty consciences). The writers, while spinning their yarns, are also stirring our empathy. These subtexts aren’t written by accident.

A somewhat deeper subtext is discernible in Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece of irony and pathos: The Sirens of Titan. I’m constantly amazed this novel isn’t considerably more famous. While lampooning many aspects of modern life and casually smacking organised religion (but not personal belief), Sirens takes the reader on an awesome (and quite funny) journey which reveals the ultimate purpose of humanity. We are insignificant indeed, and the reader is left to reflect on his/her place in the universe unsullied by the patina of institutional belief and cultural ethos with which we burden ourselves.

To attempt such a subtext without the vehicle of science fiction would be very difficult. If written as a drama, it would likely come across as turgid or preachy. If written as a comedy it would likely seem silly, glib or without foundation. Only sci-fi provides the requisite elasticity of concept to allow the story to work as brilliantly as it does.

*     *     *

So much for subtext, but what exactly is story?

The story is everything else. It starts with the plot but includes setting, characterisation, ambience, world-building, pacing, style, and structure.

In the best stories these are all blended perfectly together but, at the very least, you want a strong connection between plot and characters. There needs to be some quirk or aspect of the main character(s) which drives the plot (eg, the main characters’ goals and/or some personal features or circumstances which obstruct those goals). The plot shouldn’t work without those exact characters.

Of course, the defining characteristic of sci-fi is the setting which can involve any number of futuristic, otherworldly, technological or bizarre philosophical concepts. World-building (to underpin the setting) is particularly important in sci-fi stories to support the willing suspension of disbelief. If a reader is constantly raising an eyebrow at the unlikely nature of the world in which the story is set, then s/he will be distracted – jolted out of the story – which is the last thing you need.

For example, I found the extreme youth of the main characters in Ender’s Game way too distracting. Clearly, I’m in a minority as that book is regarded as a modern classic, but I read it with a sense of bemusement and found it hard to finish. If you bemuse your reader, your book may be put down, and maybe never picked up again.

The most satisfying stories are deeply immersive experiences where the reader loses sight of the fact that they are reading. They can almost taste and smell the world created and sense its moods – feel its dangers.

But they won’t feel the danger unless they care about the characters and identify with their motivations. My own approach is to arouse in the reader an early sense of pleasurable expectation. I want the reader to think: “Aah, I can see where this is going… this is going to be good.” I then go all out to give the reader what they expected, but also much more. As the scope of the story opens up I want the reader to be blown away by ideas and plot kickers they never saw coming, and ultimately left dazzled and breathless by the white-knuckle ride.

That’s what I aim for, but whether (or not) I’m successful is not for me to say.

*     *     *

So, what of my own work?

Why is a person who usually writes crime novels turning to sci-fi?

Well, for starters, there’s always been an element of speculative fiction to my work, and I’ve never seen myself as limited to crime (despite what publishers and agents have told me in the past). I have written an historical novel (The Fighting Man) and take the view that the story I need to tell is the story I ultimately write.

In the past, that has mostly been crime, but there’s always been subtext. My stories are always about something beyond the plot. Mr Cleansheets was an anti-racism story. Straight Jacket was about the critical importance of being honest with oneself (and significant others). Welcome to Ord City was about lots of things but mainly the rhetoric and motivation of government, endemic racism and the importance of equality in relationships.

These are not subtexts that easily lend themselves to sci-fi.

My new book (Asparagus Grass – to be published by Hague Publishing in early 2023) is a satire about the ravages of psychopathic leadership, and in the instant I had the idea for the book, knew it had to be sci-fi. Without giving too much away, the tiny problems encountered by individuals in real life are just manifestations of the fundamental conflict happening across the cosmos and far more closely related to those conflicts than we could ever dream.

This was a surprisingly fruitful idea for a story which was so strong it just told itself (and there are sequels on the way).

For me, that is the hallmark of a good story. It becomes too powerful for me and runs off under its own steam to tell a rollicking tale for which I’m almost like a reader myself. In fact, when I’m completely in the zone, I don’t remember what I’ve written. I review it the next day and am sometimes amazed by what has happened in the previous 24 hours. For the would-be novelists out there – this is truly exhilarating.

I then have to wonder what it was like for Vonnegut writing Sirens, or John Wyndham writing The Day of the Triffids, or James Cameron writing and directing Avatar. They must have known they were generating classics at the time. That would have been so exciting and all the richer for knowing they were also pursuing a subtext agenda important to them.

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that it is the subtext that makes a story great. It is the moral and meaning of a story which engages the empathy and emotions of the reader – which drives the reader to identify with the struggles of the characters, turn the pages so avidly and recall the story for decades.

But just as a great story is dependent on subtext, subtext is worthless without a strong story.

Because no book will ever be read – no subtext will ever be absorbed – unless the story can keep the reader’s attention to the last page.

Election 2022: Interesting Times

Australian politics has changed forever.

The primary vote denied to the major parties was so substantial that the presence of Greens and Independents as a significant bloc in parliament has to be regarded as effectively permanent (for the time being).

On top of that, it is the reasons for those results that have the whiff of permanence. The Coalition, in government, allowed themselves to be too led by far right philosophy – adopting a sort of uber-macho demagogue pose and dictating to the electorate rather than listening. (They even tried to dictate to China – our biggest trading partner. That went well.)

They forgot they were public servants.

It has been clear for at least the last ten years that mainstream Australians are worried about climate change. Increasing cycles of floods and bushfires have ratcheted up that concern but instead of taking action, the government continued to favour the coal lobby and even removed subsidies for investment in renewable energy sources. Failure to encourage sales of electric and hybrid cars through removal of high value levies was seen as particularly irresponsible.

Even worse, there remain some loud climate deniers in the Coalition who, in their hubris, ignore the science and the obvious impact on our weather (and ecosystem) to stay in the pockets of the coal lobby and the loony right wing media. And using Katherine Deves as a dog whistler to the worst kind of reactionary dinosaurs out there was the last straw for anyone who might have clung to the notion that the Liberal Party really did believe in its own “broad church” philosophy.

There were plenty of other reasons for disillusionment with the government.

Scott Morrison promised a federal ICAC at the last election, then spent the next three years making sure it didn’t happen. A lot of people wanted it.

Dutton and Morrison antagonised China with ridiculously aggressive rhetoric then joined a military bloc with the espoused aim of containing China. Instead, we could have used our influence with both China and America to become a trusted mediator and done some good in the world. China, of course, simply responded to our macho posturing with a trade war, then signed a treaty with the Solomons to really rub our noses in our own stupidity.  

Maybe some more women in the Coalition might have calmed the macho beasts, but alas. There are very few women in the Coalition parliamentary party and hardly any in the cabinet. If politically ambitious women (or anyone else for that matter) can’t see places for themselves and their values in a party, then they won’t join. They’ll join another party or stand as independents.

The Teal Independents are not a party, but they all campaigned on the three biggest problems the Coalition had created for itself (climate / ICAC / non-representation of women). They also focussed very much on their own local issues, and if they are seen to be articulate and active in support of those issues (plus the three big tickets), then they will likely keep their seats in future.

In contrast, the Labor party had a better platform on climate, promised a federal ICAC within 12 months of taking office and had a lot more women among its candidates. It also committed to a referendum on the Uluru Statement From the Heart (a voice in the Constitution) which the Coalition had stalled on. A lot of people wanted that also.

The government were so oblivious to (if not insouciant of) the growing fractures in the Australian polity that they failed to see the tidal wave of change about to swamp them.

So what we now have is a Labor government committed to action on climate, being inclusive of all in the decision making processes, and trying to reunify Australia (which is showing signs of becoming two different countries a la America.

It won’t be easy. There will be some serious economic challenges ahead which will test Labor’s ability to manage the economy during a time of rising inflation and other international tensions. At the same time they will need the support of the Greens in the Senate to get any legislation through so Albanese’s reputation for the art of compromise will be interesting to watch. The Greens’ demands will be expensive, but that’s what Australia has voted for so any tax repercussions will have to accompanied by a clear message of explanation.

As far as the Liberal Party is concerned, I understand that Peter Dutton is the favourite to be next leader. That would be a mistake.

The electorate has told the Liberal Party, loud and clear, that they don’t like the far right, uber-macho demagogue, and yet Dutton is the rightest, uber-est, bullhorn shouter of the lot. No man in the Coalition more represents what the electorate dislike than Peter Dutton. If he becomes leader of the opposition, then the Liberal Party will only go further backwards.

Because the result the other night was not just a climate change election, it was a generational change election. Young people, disillusioned with old-style politics and seeing nothing in the way of a vision from them, turned Green or Teal in their droves.

Young people have the longest to live in a world turning toxic and dangerous before their eyes so they did something to turn the tide. (They have other issues also – especially housing affordability – which both federal and state governments need to act upon quickly.)

The point is – children 15 years old today will be voting at the next election and they are just as passionate about these issues as the young people already voting. At the same time, many traditional voters will have died by the next election.

Labor had better remember that their primary vote shrank also. They were regarded as the least bad option, but if they do a really good job of convincing the young that they have their key interests at heart, have a chance of winning a second term as a majority government.

I believe the Greens have now truly arrived as a significant third voice and will only grow. They will have to be taken very seriously by anyone wishing to form government, and if Labor commit the unpardonable – bypass the Greens in the Senate to get legislation through – they will only be confronted by an even bigger Green Wall next time.

As for the Coalition, (especially if they pick Dutton for their leader) I would go so far as to say that they will never again form a majority government. I know what a big call that is but that’s how profound the change is that we are now witnessing.

Interesting times indeed, but just maybe… that’s not a curse.

The Post-Truth Prism: Changing Your Mind

Years ago, we humans used to have something pretty neat called the scientific method.

It was a pathway out of darkness and chaos, and led to the Age of Enlightenment with its concomitant discoveries and emancipations. Every generation, things became palpably better, fairer, and easier to understand. We were on our way to a Golden Age and all we had to do was keep applying the scientific method: observation – hypothesis – experiment – knowledge.

The only facts that matter are those which are provable, by anyone.

Facts which aren’t provable?

Well, I guess they aren’t facts.

We’re all familiar with the expression “post-truth”. We hear people say: “We’re living in the post-truth era.”

I kinda got that – superficially – there are people who don’t believe certain facts despite the evidence. For example, I know two (quite intelligent) people who are unconvinced of the moon landings. You can actually see high resolution pictures of astronaut tracks at the landing sites taken from orbit, or shine a laser off reflectors left on the moon for that very purpose, but they’ve read stuff on the internet that says it’s bollocks, so nothing can convince them otherwise.

So yeah, I had this idea that “post-truth” was a kind of mass hypnosis where people simply decided not to trust the experts – not to trust the science – but rather to trust non-elite sources of truth which delivered something closer to their own level of understanding.

Lamentable, but it didn’t do that much harm.

I’ve now realised, however, that “post-truth” is actually much worse than I thought. Post-truth has an agenda.

The true insidious nature of post-truth is the ideological prism it builds in the mind of its adherents.

Let me say immediately this is not something that happens only on one side of politics. It is something that happens in multiple contexts and any individual might have several of these. Maybe even me!

This is how it works: a person becomes so imbued with a particular idea that they become incapable of shifting away from that idea irrespective of the evidence against (internet echo chambers don’t help). They therefore need to reinterpret the evidence (or simply ignore it) to make it fit within their world view, rather than change their world view when the facts suggest they are mistaken.

In other words, the complete opposite of the scientific method.

To give an example, I was engaged in a (comparatively polite and friendly) online debate this week over former president Trump’s description of Putin’s actions in Ukraine as “genius”.

I need not bore my millions of readers with all the details but what amazed me was the lengths some people would go to fit Trump’s words within some kind of ideological construct which happily accommodated both Putin’s outrageous aggression and Trump’s apparent praise of his intellect.

For these people, it was somehow okay that Trump referred to Putin as a genius.

Would George W Bush have described Osama bin Laden as a genius after 9/11? I don’t think so.

Did Winston Churchill refer to Hitler’s invasion of Poland as genius? It would have raised a few eyebrows. I sincerely doubt he would have become prime minister (as he did shortly afterwards).

The people approving of Trump’s genius comments could not see beyond their pro-Trump/anti-Biden prism and insisted on finding ways of interpreting those comments in a positive light despite the horrible reality of what is happening in Ukraine.

I started wondering: what would these people say if they could be suddenly transported to Lviv and witness Putin’s genius first hand. Would they still call it genius? Would the war somehow be Biden’s fault?

What most worries me is the sheer number of these people and it’s not just those who still believe the US election was stolen. There are people everywhere who believe all kinds of stuff that – by any objective or scientific standard – simply isn’t true.

These people have the right to vote (in democracies – real ones, I mean) and, given enough positive publicity, can influence others to behave in ways that have no basis in truth and are actually hostile to their own best interests.

We’ve seen Trump (the pussy-grabbing, Russophile tax avoider) base a presidency on post-truth – calling everything he didn’t like “fake news” while generating billions of column inches of his own fake news – and we see similar attempts in Australia. Clive Palmer is singing from the Trump songbook and arguably changed the last federal election result by campaigning in Queensland on the basis that Labor were intending to restore death duties. It was an absolute lie with no basis anywhere in fact – but some people believed it, because it suited them to believe it.

Personally, I believe that anyone guilty of such an appalling attempt to hijack an election by making such a patently dishonest claim ought to be banned permanently from public office, but I am a simple soul and probably naïve.

This is all bad enough but the post-truth prism is not just about politics. I see similar prisms operating in myriad areas such as alternative medicine (facts please); vitamin supplements (facts please); celebrity endorsements (facts please); general anti-intellectualism; and don’t get me started on religion.

The great tragedy of our times is that we no longer have the capacity to see what is real.

We see what is real according to our prisms.

Probably the most enlightened and human thing you can do these days, is change your mind about something.

When is the last time you did that?

Changing the Rules: A Muse on Science Fiction #1

I loved science fiction as a kid.

Authors like Robert Heinlein, AE Van Vogt, Michael Moorcock, John Wyndham, John Christopher, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick and (my favourite) Andre Norton spun tales that fired and stretched the imagination – introduced readers to concepts strange, hyper-logical and otherworldly.

I won’t say that you had to be smart to like sci-fi, but I will say that the kids who did like sci-fi were always smart. Which begs the question: do you have to be intelligent to have a taste for sci-fi? Or could it be that the brain-stretching nature of sci-fi helped kids to develop in ways they might not have otherwise?

Looked at yet another way, my wife is extremely smart – a scientist, no less – but she finds the simplest sci-fi concepts very strange. She wasn’t exposed to those ideas as a child, so finds them weird as an adult. Her brain is a formidable machine but has not been stretched in the sci-fi sense.

Of course, it’s not just any sci-fi that is stretching. Space Opera like The Fifth Element or Star Wars, or shoot-em-ups like Independence Day or Starship Troopers can be entertaining in a popcorn sense (I include movies alongside novels), but the truly challenging stuff happens in the context of scenarios that change The Rules.

So what are The Rules?

The Rules are the standard PEST conditions – the Political, Economic, Social and Technological arrangements to which we are accustomed. Most sci-fi changes at least the T part of this formula, but major changes in technology are likely to be accompanied by other changes. For example, if someone announced a safe, cheap alternative to oil – like cold fusion, or green hydrogen for example – the political and economic situation would change profoundly, overnight.

If that announcement came from a benevolent provider who wanted to achieve a Utopian dream, the open source technology might be donated to the world so that all countries and peoples could enjoy access to clean, cheap energy.

However, if that announcement came from an aggressive corporation who wanted to control access to the new technology – let’s call them Janx Corp – then Janx would very quickly become the wealthiest organisation on the planet with far reaching powers into the socio-politics of every country. They could drive, if they wished, a corporate quasi-fascism in which only those keenest to do the company’s bidding would get (or maybe control) local access.

The socio-economic conditions attending both of these scenarios are obvious – one scenario promoting plenty and the other ensuring scarcity. Societies have always been ordered in terms of who gets rewarded with access to resources and in what measure, so enjoying plenty or coping with scarcity means two very different sets of political rules.

Staying with technology, some favourite tropes of sci-fi are speculation regarding what might be possible in the future. Faster-than-light (FTL) travel, for example, is fundamental to much sci-fi despite the fact that, according to our current (Einsteinian) understanding of the universe, FTL cannot happen, as mass approaches infinity with the increase in velocity. This means that nothing (with mass) can ever quite get fast enough to reach the speed of light – let alone go faster – as the physical rules of the universe simply won’t allow it.

The thing is, like Newton before him, Einstein’s equations may only be true within their particular frame and context. There may be other realities, or other aspects of our own reality, which currently elude us. Ideas such as wormhole travel in the region of blackholes, the Alcubierre drive (which in theory moves space around a ship rather than move a ship through space) or other fanciful exploitations of the quantum multiverse are legion, and some of my favourite stories concern the discovery and use of such drives.

Sci-fi, of course, is not content with just the technological developments. In many cases, we enter the story in the future – even the far future – where all PEST conditions have changed and it is the reader’s job to work out exactly what that means.

There are some shortcuts to the process though. Standard themes and tropes are recognised by regular readers who will adjust quickly. Dystopias and apocalyptical scenarios are fairly common. Environmental disaster (loss of habitat) through alien intervention, robot rebellions or our own neglect are popular means of changing The Rules.

What all these things do is place a main character(s) in a difficult situation – preferably a novel situation – so the reader can enjoy watching the characters resolve the problems in ways which make sense according to The Rules within the story.

Let’s say the heroes are Jack and Jill – junior executives within Janx Corp who have their eyes opened to the evil of Janx’s manipulation of the world and decide to do something about it; eg, steal the secret cold fusion process and publish it wikileaks style so that anyone can have cheap energy.

All of a sudden we have the bones of a plot, but from this point it becomes a standard thriller formula. The evil corporation, assisted by their government/military lackeys, are pulling out all stops to prevent Jack and Jill saving the world. We’ve all read (or seen) dozens of these stories – flip it about and the story is pretty close to Avatar – peaceful natives have something the evil corporation wants and will lose their Utopian habitat if it succeeds. It’s also reminiscent of Dune and Total Recall.

There are lots of standard formulae – human exploration leading to alien contact and challenge; alien invasion leading to existential crisis; development in technology offering new opportunities; development in technology changing political landscape; discovery of alien archaeology opens Pandora’s Box; post-apocalypse; fantasy crossovers to provide for a special talent feared by the rest…

A favourite trope of mine is the secret alien or even human evolution (supermen) story. The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham) and Slan (AE Van Vogt) were excellent novels about normal humans confronted by alien implanted children (Midwich), or further evolved children confronted by the fear and prejudice of the normal (Slan).

Inevitably, all the best books can be deconstructed in accordance with whichever mirror the author is holding up to contemporary society. Both of these books were written at the height of the Cold War arms race so existential catastrophe, xenophobia and fear of the other’s technology were prevailing subthemes within the mainstream news.

Possibly my favourite sci-fi novel is The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. To some extent it defies my PEST analysis and is more a satire about the banal mundanity of human existence using sci-fi as its vehicle. It is yet another Cold War novel and behoves the reader to ruminate on the meaning of life and the fragility of human beliefs and institutions. Vonnegut was good at that.

So, Vonnegut to one side, I suspect that most sci-fi can be reduced, on some level, to PEST changes, but what would a story look like where all the PEST factors had changed?

Dune has a decent go at such a context but the motivations of the characters are still recognisable. Given that a successful story needs to be recognisable (on some level) to the reader, would it be conceivable to build a viable (from a storytelling perspective) world which was alien in every way, including the motivations of the characters?

This is the challenge I have set myself in The Lost Journal of Renza Kol, the sequel to my new novel Asparagus Grass (being published by Hague Publishing in 2022).

*     *     *

Having reduced everyone else’s work to a finite set of themes and tropes, what can I say about my own? “Unique” would be a big call but unusual is probably fair enough. I deeply dislike comparisons but if I were to compare my work with anyone, I would shamelessly include Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams (without the silliness) and Michael Moorcock, without being quite like any of them.

I tend to like sci-fi (or fantasy for that matter) that starts out squarely in the ordinary present day, and traverses only gradually into the extraordinary. To my mind, this makes the sci-fi / fantasy seem so much more real when it comes and that’s what I find truly satisfying. I can enjoy reading totally far out fantasy or sci-fi – but what I produce myself must have the flavour and ambience of reality.

I always start with the here and now.

In Asparagus Grass (to be published in late 2022), Mitch Kuiper works in the parks for Newtown Council and the bane of his life is asparagus grass – a tough spiky weed that will conquer entire suburbs if not ripped out wherever it takes root.

As the story opens, Mitch becomes involved with two quirky young women. One is a permanent uni student engaged in some very arcane research. The other has an even more mysterious secret and, as Mitch is drawn into their worlds, finds his head exploding with the enormity of the perils before him – a galactic war, in which he has suddenly become a key player.

How can a Sydney gardener save not just the Earth, but the galaxy that contains it?

To return to my PEST theme, Asparagus Grass starts out very recognisably in the present day and only gradually morphs into something dark, dysfunctional and downright odd. All PEST vectors are changed by the end of the novel, but I am attempting something far more ambitious for the sequel to Asparagus Grass.

Having been introduced to some key concepts in the first book, the reader is launched into something much stranger in the sequel, delving into fundamental questions regarding reality, consciousness and purpose – while also flung headfirst into a rollicking adventure.

I won’t say any more at this time, but after the books are published, I’ll be happy to explore with readers exactly how successful I was at changing the Rules, while also telling an engaging and satisfying story.

In the end, it’s the story that matters.

*     *     *

I started this essay by talking about the brain stretching (mind warping?) impact of sci-fi on young readers.

So what does that mean for adult readers (and writers)?

Can our brains be further challenged by novel concepts? Or have we become too hardwired in our thinking by the time we grow up, pay our own rent, and acquire a vested interest in the status quo?

For myself, I truly hope that I remain open to new ideas – that I can even recognise an idea as being new rather than just miss it in the wash of messages, memes and manifestos with which we are so bombarded in the C21.

When I was a student, I cherished new knowledge and used to say that there was no more pleasant sensation than having a new thought. Now, as a writer, I see it as the highest goal of my art to impart new ideas to readers and leave them pondering those ideas long after the book is finished.

Of course, the imparting of ideas won’t happen unless the story itself is strong enough to keep the reader’s attention to the end. The writers I mentioned at the beginning of this piece are, for me, the great storytellers of sci-fi. There are plenty of others with magnificent ideas (eg, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Frank Herbert, Iain M Banks, Orson Scott Card et al) but I find those writers very dry when it comes to storytelling. I don’t find their books to be as gripping and “un-put-downable” – perhaps because they tend to tell long rambling stories which don’t (always) obey the more recognisable “hero’s journey” / three act structure with complex characters responding to critical problems and forming interesting relationships.

The great storytellers do all of these things while also imparting novel ideas, and it is their ranks I aspire to join.

I’m not making any great claim to have created radical new ideas in my own latest fiction, but old ideas can seem new for those unexposed to them, and old ideas can also be put together in original ways to give fresh insights for those ready to see their world differently.

If I can do that for just one million readers, then I’ll regard my work to be successful.

Michael Hutchence: I Got Him Wrong

Any of my friends will tell you that I am always the first to admit when I got it wrong.

No dissembling… or disclaimer… or trying to move the goal posts from this Little Black Duck. It’s hand up instantly to confess my utter wrongness.

Of course, you can’t put that righteous hand up until you realise you were wrong and in the current case, it’s taken me about 40 years.

I’ve never liked Michael Hutchence.

It was nothing to do with his talent – which was obvious – it was all to do with the following story…

Some time in 1980 I was at a really excellent party – possibly in Mosman. It was a big old house with a pathway that led down to a tiny beach on the harbour, and the whole night there was a stream of people coming and going between house and beach. It was warm and balmy with a hint of jasmine and amorous potential – a truly magical Sydney evening.

Returning to the house about midnight, my friend (Muth) and I encountered a very odd fellow indeed. He had quite bad acne, long greasy curls and an affected English accent. He engaged with no-one but stood in the middle of the kitchen in a kind of trance saying (over and again): “Hello. I’m Michael Hutchence, I sing up front for INXS. Hello. I’m Michael Hutchence, I sing up front for INXS etc.”

As he did this he continually brushed back his hair with his right hand in a kind of movie star flourish.

A few people asked him questions (like…what had he been taking?) but he continued to ignore us all.

Hello. I’m Michael Hutchence, I sing up front for INXS. Hello. I’m Michael Hutchence, I sing up front for INXS etc.”

So, naturally, I stood next to him and started dramatically brushing back my own hair and saying: “Hello. I’m Michael Hutchence, I sing up front for INXS. Hello. I’m Michael Hutchence, I sing up front for INXS.”

Muth joined me, and before long there about six of us in a line, all brushing back our hair and chanting the Michael mantra, which was quite a surreal moment and still strikes me as rather funny to this day.

Imagine then my surprise, a week or two later, when I turned on (I think) Countdown and there was this same clown singing up front for INXS… of whom I’d never heard to that point.

If you’ve ever seen the Simpsons episode where Krusty turns on the telly to see the Crazy Old Man singing The Ol’ Grey Mare, then you’ll know exactly how I felt in that moment.

And that, gentle reader, is why it was impossible for me to admire Michael Hutchence during his INXS career.

“What? Buy records put out by one of the loopiest wankers I’d ever met? Are you mad?”

I will own now to a secret enjoyment of some of their songs but would never have admitted as much back in the day.

Then, everything changed.

Last night, I just happened to start watching Mystify – the Michael Hutchence documentary which aired on the ABC. I’ve always been a sucker for a biography and, while it did leave out that scene from the Mosman party, I found myself enthralled by a really powerful story about an incredibly talented singer, lyricist and performer.

It’s a doco that was beautifully made, affording a wonderful insight into the bizarre world that only rock gods inhabit. In fact, as I warmed to him over the course of the show, I found myself regretting that I’d never been a fan of INXS and so had never seen them live.

Clearly I’ve missed out.

While there was reference to the pressure he was under, something not really mentioned in the film was the state of his mental health (notwithstanding the brain injury he suffered in 1992). It’s easy enough to diagnose from a distance but very few have any experience of his outrageous level of fame, and those who have didn’t report anything that might wind up in the next DSM. His was a complex world with no instruction manual.

And in the end he was a casualty. Or at least from my bourgeois perspective he was a casualty. It’s entirely possible that, in rock god heaven, he is still revelling in every moment of his brief existence with the rest of the 27 Club (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse).

So who did I really meet on that Mosman night back in 1980? A whacko, drug-addled pratt? Or a musical genius in the flowering of his muse?

For most of us mortals we’ll never tell them apart.

Our Glad

I feel deeply sorry for Gladys Berejiklian.

I’m about as far from being a Liberal voter as you could possibly get, but I tend to think all politicians in Australia are rubbish.

The main reason, I suspect, is that we don’t pay politicians enough. Accordingly, we get B graders – or even C graders – because anyone with talent and ambition has no interest in public office. The A-graders are running major corporations, or universities, or unions or hospitals. They’re judges or surgeons or partners in major accounting firms. Occasionally they’re even artists or writers (god forbid), but they are never ordinary.

They have real careers to pursue.

If we paid politicians a decent salary then I suspect we would dramatically broaden and deepen the pool of people interested in public life (assuming the inherently corrupt preselection system allowed that to happen).

Until that happy day, we have to put up with what we’ve got. And what we’ve got is a shambles.

The level of corruption that turns up again and again in Australian politics (on both sides) is just staggering, and I’d suggest (again) it’s because they’re not paid enough.

Let me rephrase that… not paid enough to satisfy their greed.

NSW backbenchers are paid about $200k per year (once all the benefits kick in) and the Premier makes over $400k. You’d think that would be enough for most (when the average wage is $89k) but apparently not.

Some of them can’t help but use their office (or insider knowledge) to further feather their nests and that just turns my stomach.

To my mind, there ought to be no greater crime than corruption in public office. And that’s why, with a fair bit of regret, I have to say: “Gladys…you blew it.”

Being as fair minded as I can be (as a traditional Green/Labor voter) I’d say Gladys has done a decent job as premier, but the instant I heard the fateful words: “I don’t have to hear about that,” I knew it was all over.

Those words came from a transcript of her late night discussion with secret boyfriend, Darryl Maguire. He was boasting about how much money he’d made exploiting his special relationship with her and, instead of immediately taking him to task, she turned a blind eye.

Many will suggest she was a victim of Maguire’s exploitation, and no doubt that’s correct. But no matter how you spin it, the rules change when you take public office. All of a sudden you are subject to the highest possible standards when it comes to behaviour, and anything that smacks of exploitation deserves the highest condemnation.

So too does condoning exploitation. I’m amazed it’s taken this long.

Because that’s what Gladys did.

She understood that corruption in public office had occurred but did nothing to stop it. And, sorry Gladys, for me that is inexcusable.

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, and yet we heard about this at least 12 months ago. That’s a really long time to be getting the benefit of the doubt, and presumably the ICAC have a really strong case against her, or why else would this be happening when we so desperately need strong leadership.

Or is it strong leadership?

Anyone prepared to condone that sort of corruption, is corrupt. They may have done it for deeply personal reasons, but so what? You leave personal reasons at the door when you walk into parliament and that’s what she forgot.

It’s a shame. I very rarely have any time for conservative politicians (or any politicians really – they’re all terrible) but she seemed like she genuinely cared.

In the end, she cared more about her relationship than she did about the laws and the people of New South Wales whom she was sworn to protect.

Oh Glad… how could you?

Who Stole The Great Aussie Larrikin?

One of the chief sub-narratives of the Covid anti-vaccination movement is the assertion that the great Australian virtue of robust individualism – otherwise known as larrikinism – has more or less died in the C21.

Nowhere, they suggest, is this more evident than in the general sheep-like compliance with health directives to be vaccinated. A sentiment driven especially by those who organise demonstrations against vaccination and lockdowns.

Australia has always favoured the underdog against Authority – at least in retrospect. I doubt many would have sided with the convicts in the early decades of the colony but the convicts, ticket-o-leavers and free settlers vastly outnumbered the gentry and magistracy, and their egalitarian sentiments gradually gained currency, if always a generation or two behind.

By Federation at the turn of the C19/20 the Australian character was firmly established and both males and females revelled in their disinclination to follow the rules. Us Aussies were above all that crap and no-one could tell us what to do.

Or could they?

We were fiercely Australian but we were still British. When Britain entered the Boer War and the First World War we all signed up in our larrikin droves – robustly individual but willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our foreign-led community.

The sentiment continued throughout the Second World War, the Korean War and even the Vietnam War, but it was Vietnam, during the cultural revolution of the 60s where a different individualist narrative finally reared its head.

The spirit of the 60s required the individual to question authority in a way that had never quite happened before. The axiomatic rightness of Queen and Country was no longer quite strong enough to inspire all young men to jump out of trenches and run towards the machine guns.

So larrikinism changed. We used to be larrikins prepared to die for the King, but now we were either larrikins prepared to die for country – or larrikins who refused to die for anyone. Two different larrikin camps but both claiming the right to the larrikin narrative from the earliest days of the colony.

Fast forward to 2021, the narrative has further splintered to the point that no-one can properly identify the larrikin genealogy back to its first scions. We even see far right groups waving the Eureka flag and claiming its larrikin/socialist tradition for themselves in exactly the same way that exploitative thugs in the Middle East claim Islam as their flag and moral justification.

Exploitative thugs waving flags, in the end, are just thugs.

Even sadder, in these subtle propaganda days, is the way that robust individuals of good heart can be influenced, or even psychologically colonised, by people whose interests are inimical to their own but know how to press their larrikin buttons and exploit their actions towards ends they will never perceive.

The incitement of Victorian construction workers, in the name of robust individualism, by the forces of the radical right is utterly bewildering. These are people being told what to think by people who are telling them not to be told what to think.

Orwell would’ve absolutely loved this.

The deliberate confusion of narratives by a legion of forces with conflicting perspectives and motives is what we are dealing with in the modern world and none of it helps us to make up our minds about vaccination.

I’m not blaming or pointing the finger at anyone and I’m not trying to tell people what to think about vaccination. I’ve no doubt been fooled or hoodwinked plenty of times myself, so I sympathise with everyone. Mind you, I have always considered myself a bit of a larrikin but maybe that’s just a robust individual’s conceit…

All I ask is that everyone think about why they think what they think and who told them to think that way.

And why.

If you’re satisfied your thinking is truly your own, then maybe you truly are continuing the great Aussie tradition of larrikinism.

Anti-Vax Cowboys

I was shown an anonymous letter delivered to the doctors of a local medical practice today, claiming some bizarre authority in order to demand they “cease and desist” the use of experimental vaccines.


This letter, signed by “a concerned citizen” on behalf of “we, the people”, is a ridiculous mish mash of barely understood medical and legal concepts cobbled together (from a range of jurisdictions – “we, the people” refers to the US Constitution) in a vain attempt to intimidate doctors into stopping their very important work of vaccinating Australians against the Covid virus.

I’m deeply pissed off about this hare-brained intrusion into the important work of medical professionals, on numerous levels, but as a lawyer, I also believe passionately in the freedom of speech.

But where do we draw the line?

At what point is the right to freedom of speech extinguished?

Are we free to say anything we like? No matter how deluded, offensive or dangerous?

I would suggest that there is certainly a right to the freedom of speech, but there is no right to freedom from the consequences of exercising that right. As the drafter of the letter clearly understood when declining to put their name to the letter.

I would further suggest that the implicit threat in this letter – accusing doctors who continue to vaccinate of treason, conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duty liable to punishment – is a form of assault.

I note also that claiming to speak on behalf of the law of the nation, in this way, is a form of (criminal) fraud, plus a tort of harassment. Once again, it’s no wonder that no-one has put their name to this drivel.

They then take refuge in citing the law of God (like all scoundrels) and claiming to have secular powers to discipline doctors. I seriously encourage the real secular authorities to leave no stone unturned to bring these fools to justice.

Or do I?

I fully support the right of all Australians to express their views.

But I do not support their right to express their views by harassing doctors doing work supported by government, and by all reputable scientific authority, to the benefit of the nation.

Claiming authority you do not actually have is fraud.

Attempting to intimidate doctors from doing their legitimate and governmentally authorised work is a form of harassment that, in the current circumstances, ought to be regarded as aggravated harassment worthy of criminal sanction.

There is a limit to freedom of speech.

All Australians have the right to make uninformed decisions likely to impair their health and happiness, but no-one has the right to impose those decisions on others. If you are stupid enough to believe that vaccination is not the only way back to normality – no wuckers.

It’s OK, you don’t get the science but that doesn’t mean you have to drag everyone else down to your own level.

Don’t waste the time of those trying to bring the nation back into the light.

As for the real legal authorities… over to you.