5 favourite quotes from my fiction

5) If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence. – George Eliot. (For the Light of the Stars)

4) To Romans I set no boundary in space or time. I have granted them dominion, and it has no end. Virgil, The Aeneid. (The Prophet)

3) If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts right through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (Shards of Babylon)

2) Freedom is like life. You cannot be given life in installments. You cannot be given breath but no body, nor a heart but no blood vessels. Freedom is one thing — you have it all or you are not free. – Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Way of the Warrior)

1) Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. — John Donne. (Shards of Babylon)

Modern Myth

Well, I’m still working on Shards of Babylon. Should be finished soon… or at least as “finished” as any story of mine ever is. In the meantime I’ve started planning a few short stories to work on later this year. One I’m looking forward to is The Last Giant. It’s going to be a bit of a departure for me, more of a modern fairy tale.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself drawing more heavily on different myths and motifs as inspiration for my stories, which is one reason for TLG; I want to try to create a mythic world, based in the real world. I guess that shouldn’t be a great surprise; mythology and history have always been great interests of mine. The reason I like the “classic” mythic structure, though, is that it’s a great template, allowing character and thematic development against an epic landscape. Myths reflect the times they were created in, the concerns of the people who created them, and right now that offers the chance to talk about the terror age in a way people can understand; that’s something that appeals to me too.

It’ll be a few months until I have TLG finished, but the reason I’m mentioning this is because I was talking to someone about it the other day and she asked me something interesting: why aren’t those kinds of myths still being written today? Stories like The Iliad, Isis and Osiris, Gilgamesh – why are they being retold, instead of new myths being invented? My initial reaction was that all myths are retold stories anyway, but there are new ones being written, in new forms. Where myths used to be handed down through generations, modern myth is now told through the media. But the same themes are there, if you know where to look.

So what is modern myth? I think one of the best examples lies in comic books. It’s no coincidence that the plethora of superhero films we’ve seen recently have achieved such success; the comics they’re based on verge on myth. Comics like Superman and Spider-Man have evolved over their decades in print, creating detailed back-stories and constantly exploring the conflict between good and evil. They’ve created their own mythologies, but while they have done that they’ve also stayed true to the classic themes of all myths: humanity, friendship, love, lust, betrayal. Think of the recent X-Men: The Last Stand. Near the end the X-Men stand united against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Mutants outside the walls of Alcatraz; is this so different than the Trojans and Achaeans clashing outside Troy? Indeed, the mutants are fighting over their “cure”, which you could see as a battle over their immortality and legend; at the heart of The Iliad is Achilles quest for immortality by slaying Hector, a theme that recurs again and again throughout mythology – from Heracles and Gilgamesh, to the quest for the Holy Grail.

Likewise, mythic themes are constantly reinvented in literature. The most obvious example is fantasy, where an entire genre has been derived from the tales and figures of our past; witches, dragons, goblins, fairies, all have their origins in one mythic tale or another (and in some dark fear of their time). Even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, perhaps the most famous (and detailed) mythology to have been invented, has its origins in many Germanic and Norse myths. More recent works have taken the classic mythic structure in new directions; the Harry Potter stories in introducing children to classic fairy-tales in unorthodox ways, Garth Nix’s creating a world of the dead in his Abhorsen trilogy, James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah following a classic quest when God’s corpse is found floating in the Pacific. It extends well beyond fantasy, though. Before Shakespeare told Romeo and Juliet, the greatest of all love stories, there were the myths of Tristan and Isolde, Paris and Helen, and many others. In contemporary literature Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code draws heavily on a mythological structure; not least in its quest archtype or its speculations about Christ, but also in its re-imagining of the quest for the Holy Grail, a theme which again stretches back to the knights of King Arthur, and Achilles. In fact you could say that all stories originate from one mythic theme or another; tales of romance, conflict, revenge, lust, metamorphosis, were shared long before anyone knew how to write. No story is ever truly original, only re-imagined, put in a new context, with new ideas.

My point then is that myth isn’t dead; rather it’s everywhere, echoing in every part of our society, but not everyone recognises it. They expect the same stories to take the same form, but mythology evolves so that its form is different to each generation, while the themes remain. What were oral tales handed down through centuries are now told through the media; through books like The Lord of the Rings, movies like Edward Scissorhands and Pan’s Labyrinth, music like Wagner’s Rings opus. They tell the same stories, in different ways, and reach more people than they ever could before.

And that’s why I’m looking forward to The Last Giant; perhaps somewhat selfishly, because it’s something I’ve long wanted to try, but also because, based in myth, it allows me to reflect the concerns of our time. And that’s the fiction I want to write; stories as much concerned about character as the world it creates. I’m also planning a series later which will draw on those themes again, The Chosen… but we’ll see how TLG goes first!

So in the meantime, why not grab a book, watch a film? Maybe it’s something you’ve read or seen before, maybe not… but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Chances are you’re familiar with it anyway, aren’t you, in that way we all are: by remembering a time, long ago, when we sat around a campfire, the light flickering on our faces, as our elders told us a story about heroes, gods, and monsters, and we dared to dream.

Banning people with HIV from entering Australia

HIV border control suggested to stop outbreak

Am I the only one who finds John Howard’s comments here difficult to understand? Or am I getting senile or something, because the reaction to these new guidelines has been very muted. The new system proposed by Tony Abbott would require visa applicants over the age of 15 to be tested for HIV/AIDS, where they could be denied entrance on an individual basis, and I find that troubling.

While it’s a good idea to have people declare/be tested to see if they are HIV-positive (as we often do anyway), it’s verging on discrimination for Australia to deny entry to immigrants and refugees purely because they are HIV-positive. It’s scaremongering; we need precautions, not to exclude an entire community of people who need help.

HIV is not like tuberculosis, SARS or other viruses which could pose an immediate danger to the population; if properly managed people can live with HIV for a decade or more before it becomes AIDS, and the vast majority of people with HIV are responsible about not infecting other people. You can’t blame the majority of infected patients for what others do maliciously, and to not allow someone to come to Australia purely because of a health condition is immoral.

In addition to that some AIDS activists have indicated that any rise in infection rates has more to do with people who don’t know they are infected practicing unsafe sex, than migrants and refugees. Perhaps the government should look at doing more to raise awareness and testing for HIV amongst all people, rather than trying to secure our borders against an imagined threat.

Pan's Labyrinth

I saw Pan’s Labyrinth last week, the first film I’ve seen for a long while. What a beautiful film, one of the best I’ve seen. Sometimes I have trouble with subtitles, but I didn’t even notice with this.

Visually Pan’s Labyrinth is stunning; the look of it, the costumes, graphics, light and dark. The story underneath draws you in; it’s meaty, dark, set against the backdrop of war. You genuinely care for Ofelia. Is her belief in the other world real, or a way of escaping the terrors of her world? The last scene stayed with me a long time.

A lot of people have called Pan’s Labyrinth an adult fairy tale, and it is, but I think it’s a morality tale as well. It shows the power of a child’s imagination, but also how decisions aren’t black and white; everything has a consequence. At times it is brutally violent, but you can’t tell a story like this without violence. The violence has an honesty; it shows the darkness of the world Ofelia is trying to escape from, and like with the tales of The Brothers Grimm (before fairy tales were butchered to protect tender eyes and ears), the true strength of Pan’s Labyrinth is only revealed when it shocks and scares.

I can’t recommend Pan’s Labyrinth more highly. The music is beautiful and the film stays with you, as good movies should. It amazes me that something like 300 (glorifying violence, an allegory for modern America and its war) can get so much attention, while Pan’s Labyrinth remains relatively unknown, a film which depicts the best and worst of the human spirit, hope out of darkness. It’s what storytelling should be. Please, please see it.

SavageGarden: 10 years on

I was thinking earlier just how amazing it is that it’s been 10 years since SavageGarden’s first album came out. It really doesn’t feel like that. Their music is still played on the radio all the time, and Darren Hayes’ career is still going well, if not with as much commercial success as when he was part of Savage.

So I listened to SavageGarden again recently (thought I’d rekindle a few memories) and I was surprised at how well the album holds up today. Yes, I Want You and All Around Me couldn’t be more 90s now, but even they are still fun and bring back thoughts of the first time I heard them (and The Matrix for some reason I’ll never understand). But songs like To the Moon & Back, Truly Madly Deeply, Break Me Shake Me haven’t aged much at all. The songwriting is still striking. Now every song you hear is either hip hop or a pop song with a chorus repeated 10 times; something angry and raw like Break Me Shake Me seems to have disappeared from mainstream artists.

Looking back Savage seemed to be one of the first artists to begin the resurgence of prog pop (as the SMH calls it, music which “throws up tunes galore while also presenting material more complex than your standard three-minute radio hit”), which is only now coming more to the fore with Silverchair, Josh Pyke and other artists here in Aus – and they did it 10 years ago. But then Savage won 10 ARIAS for their debut; they had to win them for a reason, right?

It’s still a pity that SavageGarden broke up; I always felt like their best material was still to come (quite something considering how good Affirmation was). But that Daniel Jones in particular showed the initiative to walk away from the success they achieved is even more remarkable, a sign of what really mattered to the group. How many acts could you see doing that now? Not many. Jones has now returned to his roots as a producer, finding fresh talent for his music label Meridien Musik, and Hayes’ third studio album This Delicate Thing We’ve Made is being released later this year.

And for the fans, we still have these two albums, the memories of their music. So congrats to SavageGarden: it’s been 10 years but their music is still just important, just as much a part of the Australian identity, as it’s ever been.

David Hicks and why people can't debate

Miranda Devine: Australian prisoners also wait years for day in court
I was reading Miranda Devine’s column in The Sun-Herald recently (see link above) and something struck me about it. I read Devine’s column when I can and though I rarely agree with what she says, I still find it interesting; she makes her points well, usually without personally attacking people for their views.

But apparently that’s something few can do. Devine listed some of the correspondence she’d received over a column about David Hicks and it was atrocious. One email started “Birdbrain Devine”, another “Dear Miranda – vacant brain and political whore!”. Worse was the anti-Semitism beneath many of the emails. One said “when you write such rubbish about Hicks it is a giveaway that you are Jewish. Only the Jews support what the United States does in the Middle East, because the Jews are an awful race that don’t give a damn about anyone but the ‘Chosen People’.”

This kind of response amazes me. What do they think they are going to achieve by attacking Devine’s character? It has absolutely nothing to do with her article or the facts of David Hicks’s detention at Guantánamo Bay, and I don’t see an equivalent in Devine’s column itself; it is simply a personal attack and does not engage anyone on a serious level. And so much of it is happening these days. Here readers were responsible, but they have learnt it from sections of the media, sections who, when they see a person whose message they disagree with, rather than challenge their point of view, slander them so no-one will listen. Just think of what’s happened between Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell, and more. It’s become common place to attack the messenger rather than the message and I’m getting sick of it. When someone does that, they’re not engaging anyone; they’re attacking purely on a base level and lose any credibility they might have had.

It’s almost as if the idea of debating an issue has disappeared from the public discourse. But then why should it have ever survived? We live in an age of 24 hour news, where ratings and money determine the content more than whether it is newsworthy. People enjoy conflict and personality in their news sources now, as well as the news itself; pitting opposing ideologies against each other, strong egos telling us what’s happening and what we should think and feel about it. There’s nothing in that environment which is conducive to legitimate debate, or at least a debate beyond a shouting match, so of course it’s a skill we’re losing. But it’s something we were always going to lose, with the age we live in. It was inevitable.

As for why Devine’s article sparked such a fierce reaction, that didn’t surprise me. The feeling over Hicks’s detention is powerful, and if you add the current flavour of anti-Americanism to it, and anti-Semitism, and the feelings that Australians have towards anti-authority figures, then it’s easy to see how Hicks could appear as a hero. The thing is, he’s not. Don’t get me wrong: I do not like Guantánamo Bay and I think that Hicks was not charged for 5 years is atrocious; but he was in Afghanistan and aided the Taliban, for whatever reasons. He should have been given a fair go and put on trial years ago, but Hicks is not a hero in this. The bigger issue for me is that the Australian government allowed the treatment of one of its citizens to continue when it could have done more, and that’s something we should all remember.

5 favourite movie villains

Another fives list for you; some of the movie villains I love to hate. But with lines like these, how could you not?

5) Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving)
The Matrix Trilogy
“Mr. Anderson. Welcome back. We missed you.”

4) Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates)
“I am your number one fan. There is nothing to worry about. You are going to be just fine. I am your number one fan.”

3) Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)
The Shining
“Here’s Johnny.”

2) Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

1) Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones)
Star Wars Trilogy
“No. I am your father.”

Earth Hour a succees… kind of

Earth Hour - Saturday 31 March 2007, 7:30pm-8:30pm

Saturday saw the first Earth Hour here in Sydney, a campaign encouraging Sydneysiders to turn off their lights from 7.30 to 8.30 pm to raise awareness for Global Warming. According to The Sun-Herald more than 65,000 homes and 2000 businesses and government departments turned off their lights. And it was quite a sight, I have to say… the skyline, Bridge and Opera House, all much darker, the stars shining clearly. We love our lights in Sydney (just think of the NYE fireworks), so it was strange to see our city in near-darkness. Quite nice, actually.

Organisers are hoping Earth Hour will spread across Australia next year, and to other Asian cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo… but I’m not sure how much of a success it was here, to be honest. The idea of Earth Hour is good, to raise awareness for Global Warming and to get Sydney to lower it’s carbon emissions by 5% throughout 2007. But there are 4 million people in Sydney; that’s roughly 1 million homes, and maybe 420,000 thousand around the Eastern Suburbs where Earth Hour was targeted – I don’t call 65,000 homes a “resounding” success, just a good start. But worse, people were treating it like a party. I suppose that’s no great surprise; we’ll take any excuse to get wasted, after all. But then the media (or Sky News anyway) started calling it a “celebration”, encouraging people to have “name the food” games and other activities. Maybe I missed something but wasn’t the idea not to have a celebration, but to take time to think about the issue? We’re observing an event and demeaning it at the same time.

That’s what annoys me so much about the GW issue. It feels like it is being treated as a “hot topic”, not something which is so serious. Maybe I sound cynical, but I’m not; I’m angry. Scientists have been telling us about the dangers of climate change for more than twenty years, and it’s only now that we decide to listen? Why have scientists and specialists at all if we simply decide to ignore them when we need their advice? And many politicians are only listening now because it’s in our minds, in an election year; they see it as an opportunity to highlight the differences between themselves and their opposition. I’m sure people like Peter Garrett and Kevin Rudd are earnest in their concerns, but they’re still scoring political points off of it. Still, at least Labor cares. Howard and Turnbull have been abysmal on this. They want nuclear power. Yeah, great; go and create more targets for al-Qaeda. Thanks, John.

So Earth Hour was an interesting, if not an entirely resounding, success. Hopefully what it has done is to raise more awareness, inspired people to learn more about it and what they can do to help. In the end Saturday night was about sending a statement, and I think it did that, even if the media coverage made it feel a bit more like a publicity stunt. The important thing is, I think, to make people understand that, whatever you feel about GW, it’s not an issue to sweep under the rug; talk about it, whether you agree or disagree. Because I fear that what will happen is what occurred with Live8; people wanted immediate change and when it didn’t happen, they lost interest. We can’t let that happen again with Global Warming, whether we agree or disagree with what’s being said… but I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait and see if that happens.