Posts Tagged ‘Forbidden Planet’

Tharg’s Tribute to Kevin O’Neill: When the Comics Code Banned His Art

December 30, 2017

Yesterday in one of the posts I mentioned the dictatorial grip the Comics Code Authority had over American comics from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The Code was sent up to reassure and protect the American public after the moral panic over Horror comics in the 1950s. This spread to comics as a whole, which were seen as subversive, morally corrupting and un-American. This included bizarre accusations of Fascism and deviant sexuality aimed at those stalwarts of popular American culture, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The scare decimated the American comics industry, and nearly caused its total collapse.

The Code was set up to ensure that all comics were suitable for a child of seven to read. Its officials were unelected, and in many cases had right-wing views that showed absolutely no understanding of popular politics or culture. It was supposed to be a voluntary organisation, and there were comics creators who worked outside and often against the code. Like Robert Crumb and the underground scene, or the independents Like Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, those comics were well outside the mainstream, and were only available in head shops and specialist comics stores like Forbidden Planet and the late, lamented Forever People in Bristol.

I discussed how the Code rejected one issue of the Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, on the grounds that O’Neill’s artwork was too grotesque and disturbing for children. This was ironic, as he had been delighting children and adults with his monstrous aliens, mutants, robots and equally grotesque humans for years in the pages of 2000 AD. He was and remains one of comicdom’s favourite artists, and while the other artists who worked on the Nemesis the Warlock strip added the considerable talents to the tale of the Warlock and his foe, the human ‘Ultimate Fascist’ Grand Master Torquemada, I think much of the strip’s initial popularity came from his superb, bizarre artwork.

2000 AD duly paid tribute to him and his censorship by the Comics Code in their anniversary issue, Prog 500, published on 14 December 1986. In it, Tharg took a walk through the contents of his mind, reviewing the comic’s history and revisiting some of the characters that didn’t work. At the end he comes to Kevin O’Neill, who appears as a stunted, crazed sadist. O’Neill admonishes him for censoring the most extreme piece of violence in the strip. Tharg tries to reassure him by reminding him that he won the ‘ultimate accolade’ for which other comics creators all envy him: the day the Comics Code banned his art as totally unsuitable for children. To which O’Neill replies ‘Hmmph. You won’t get around me by flattery’. Unsatisfied, O’Neill then calls down Torquemade, who promptly beats Tharg up.

The different sections of that strip were written and drawn by the different artists and writers, who worked on the comic, so there were different credit cards for them for each section. That section ends with the credits reading ‘Script Therapy: Pat Mills. Art Therapy: Kev O’Neill. Letters: Steve Potter’. Which suggests that the letterer was the only sane one there.

Here’s a few panels.

The real O’Neill is, however, quite different from his portrayal in the strip. It’s been pointed out several times that the fans, who’ve met him, are often surprised that he doesn’t dress in black and silver like the Terminators. And the other rumours about him are also totally untrue. Like he only works at night using a quill pen in the light of candles, and has an occult temple in his basement. I met him at UKCAC 90 in Reading, where I queued with Mike to have him draw a character on the blank badges we’d been given for our fave artists to draw on. O’Neill at the time was a wearing a ‘Solidarity for Nicaragua’ T-shirt, which a left-wing friend of mine at college also wore. He also was wearing a brown leather jacket, and his facial features at the time reminded me a bit of John Hurt. He was affable, enthusiastic, full of nervous energy and completely unthreatening. If you seem him now at comic conventions or footage of them on YouTube, or the occasional interview for television, he’s obviously older and balder, as effects so many of us eventually. He comes across as genial and entertaining British gent, completely unlike the berserk monstrosities that rampage across his strips down the years. Even when he’s telling the stories about how he and Pat Mills went as far as they could in savaging American superhero comics and right-wing, superpatriotic American politics in the violent and nihilistic Marshal Law. Actors, writers and artists aren’t their creations. Fortunately.

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Zarjaz! Documentary about 2000 AD!

September 25, 2016

Borag Thungg, Earthlets! As the Mighty Tharg used to say. I found over at Moria, the Science Fiction Film and Television database, a review of the 2014 documentary Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD, directed by Paul Goodwin, and made by Stanton Media/Deviant Films. The film tells the story of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, and the crew of recidivist cultural deviants, who responsible, amongst other offences, for bringing the world Judge Dredd, Mega-City 1’s toughest lawman. Among those speaking in the movie are the mighty comics creators Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman, Carlos Ezquerra, John Wagner, Dave Gibbon, Bryan Talbot, Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Cam Kennedy and Karl Urban, who played Dredd in the movie of the same name a few years ago.

The Moria review sets the origins of the comic in the context of Britain in the late 70s and early 80s, when Margaret Thatcher was in power, unemployment was at three million and the National Front was on the march. 2000 AD appeared following the cancellation of Action, a previous comic that had been banned after parents’ concerns that it was too violent. The team assembled to produce the new comic were partly drawn from those responsible for Action, like Mills, and the new comic definitely had a subversive edge. It was partly reacting against the old Fleetway children’s comics, whose stories were very safe. It takes its title from a series of unrelated bizarre stories, ‘Tharg’s Future Shocks’. As I recall, the strip in which these stories were first announced set the tone by showing a jaded, spoiled sprog, defiantly unimpressed with the previous offerings from British comics, who is then taken by Tharg to see the terrible and dangerous visions that the Future Shock strips will introduce. This is too much for the enfant terrible, and the traumatised brat is led away to received much-needed medical care, while Tharg urges them to ‘treat him gently’. An example of the strong subversive theme running through the comic is Dredd himself. Dredd was deliberately intended to be something of an ambivalent hero, a parody of Fascistic US policing. The Moria review notes that the more extreme Dredd became, the more popular he was, to the point where Carlos Ezquerra didn’t want to continue drawing the character after producing the original design. This probably shouldn’t be too surprising, as Ezquerra had as his inspiration for Dredd’s uniform that of Franco’s Fascists with their helmets and shoulder pads, though the review doesn’t mention this. John Wagner, Dredd’s creator, was always insistent that the character should never take off his helmet and show his face, as he was the symbol of the faceless police state.

The review discusses 2000 AD’s role as the first British comic to credit the artists and writers, and how this led to a brain drain as their leading creators were then lured off by the big American comic firms like Vertigo. I don’t think 2000 AD were quite the first. I think a few years before then the war comic, Battle, had also started to credit the people creating the strips. It also covers the magazine’s drop in quality and popularity in the 1990s, and then it’s revival under Matt Smith. It notes that all of the creators interviewed saw the comic as edgy, subversive and individualistic. This is certainly born out by some of the comments made in the movie’s trailer, which is also included in the review. This features the various writers and illustrators remarking on the comic and what they intended to achieve with it. Several of them, such as one by Pat Mills, are along the lines that the comics company really didn’t know what was about to hit them.

I don’t think they did. 2000 AD was never as controversial as Action, but nevertheless there were concerns occasionally that the comic was too violent. It did, however, produce some of the greatest comic strips that are still going thirty years later, like the ABC Warriors, Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock, Strontium Dog, The Ballad of Halo Jones, and, of course, Judge Dredd. The future’s ultimate cop was hailed at the time by the space fact magazine, New Voyager, as the Dan Dare for the 1980s. High praise indeed!

The review also talks about the three films or so have that were released based on the comic. These include the two Judge Dredd films, Judge Dredd, which appeared in the 1990s with Sylvester Stallone playing Dredd; and Dredd, which came out a couple of years ago, with Karl Urban in the title role. They also include Richard Stanley’s Hardware, which was taken uncredited from Shok!, a short story told by Dredd’s mechanical friend, Walter the Wobot. 2000 AD took the film’s producers to court in plagiarism case, and won. The film’s producers were forced to credit the 2000 AD strip, though I think Stanley still maintains that he didn’t steal the idea from 2000 AD. Of the two Dredd films, the first is considered a disaster, while the second was a hit with both audiences and the strip’s creators, who praise the movie in the film. Stanley’s Hardware is also a classic of low budget SF film-making, and has rightly received wide praise. It was made in 1989, but still looks good a quarter of a century and more later, and its relatively high quality of design and production makes it appear that it had a bigger budget than it actually had. Stanley’s career as a cinema director I think ended after he was sacked from directing the 1990s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This was at least partly the result of the utterly bizarre behaviour of Marlon Brando, who took the part of Moreau. There’s also a film about the making of that movie, which shows just how bonkers and extremely difficult to work with Brando was, to the point where filming at time degenerated something close to farce. it’s a pity, as Stanley was and is a talented film-maker with fresh, interesting concepts. If things were ideal, he and 2000 AD would ideally make their peace, and he should produce a film based on some of the comics’ other strips. But this ain’t an ideal world, and so that very definitely won’t happen.

I don’t know if the documentary is available on YouTube, and I don’t recall having seen it on the shelves of HMV, but it might be worth checking out your local comics shop, like Forbidden Planet.

The Moria review can be read at: http://moria.co.nz/sciencefiction/future-shock-the-story-of-2000ad-2014.htm

Motherboard Report on the Japanese Robot Hotel

November 25, 2015

This is another interesting video I found over on Youtube. It’s a piece by the science news programme, Motherboard, on the Henn-na – Japanese for ‘weird’ Hotel in Tokyo that’s staffed by robots. The presenter states that Japan has legions of industrial robots, and Japanese trends were believed to show what the future would be like. In the case of the hotel industry, a few decades ago this was believed to be the capsule hotels, where tired Sararimen hired what was basically a stacked space about the size of a coffin to sleep in. The presenter tries one of these out, and talks to a traditional Japanese hotelier about how he feels about the rise of hotels where everything is done by robots.

The human hotelier states that he believes that people actually want the human touch, and personal contact with other human beings. So to compete, he believes that ordinary hotels will have to concentrate on being more human, rather than like those run by the machines. The journalist then goes on to sample what a night in one of these robot hotels is like. He states that the Japanese are turning to robots in order to cut down on high labour costs.

Inside the hotel, he is greeted with the hotel reception, which consists of two robots on a desk. One is in the guise of a woman, the other is a dinosaur in a hat. To check in, he has to use a touch-screen, which he describes as like those used at checkouts. Any valuables you have is placed in a locker behind glass by a robot arm, which the journalists says could come from a state of the art factory. Your luggage is taken to your room by another robot, though this is a robot trolley, not any kind of humanoid machine. In the bedroom on the bedside drawers is another, rather diminutive robot, which responds to your voice, greets you, and asks if you want the lights on or off.

Back down stairs, there are no catering staff. All the meals come from vending machines. There is a small human staff of about three guys. When interviewed, they also talk about how these hotels are driven by the need to cut labour costs. The journalist also interviews the managers, who states that he believes these hotels will become more popular and appear around the world. He and his staff also believe that to compete, hotels staffed by humans will also have to offer a more uniquely human experience.

The presenter himself and some of the guests he interviews are, however, in the end less than enthusiastic about the experience. He states that while its exciting to begin with, it’s actually rather lonely. The group of young women he interviews actually state that it’s really rather boring.

Here’s the video:

Now the presenter makes the point that as machines take more of our jobs, businesses like these raise the question of what can be uniquely done by humans. I’d argue that hotel catering and accommodation may not be an industry that can only be done by humans, but at the moment its an industry that can only be done well by humans.

If you look at the type of robots that have been popular in SF, they’re fictional machines that have had real characters and personalities. Think of Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, C-3PO and R2D2 in the Star Wars films and K-9 in Dr Who. The same with the sentient computers, like Zen, Orac and Slave in Blake’s 7, or the Hal 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Or even Marvin the Paranoid Android in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These machines became favourite SF characters because they were precisely that: characters. They were essentially artificial people, with human-like intelligence, personality traits and even flaws. Robbie the Robot had all the polite aloofness of a human butler. C-3PO was fussy and rather camp, but a foil for R2D2, who was cheeky and slightly wilful, in the manner of a child determined to have its own way. Orac in Blake’s 7 was arrogant and pedantic, like a rather tetchy university professor. Slave was grovelling and subservient. K-9 was a perky companion, eager to help his master, but also with his own mind and opinions. The Hal-9000 computer was proud of its model’s computing power, accuracy and reliability, stated it enjoyed human companion, even though it went on to kill the crew on the grounds that human unreliability made them a threat to the success of the mission. Finally, it felt fear, when Dave Bowman, the hero of that segment of the film, closed it down. Zen was the most impersonal of all the machines. Except for its dying moment in the last episode of the third series, ‘Terminal’, it did not refer to itself. It was basically a hemisphere in a corner of the Liberator’s flight deck, across which flowed patterns of lights. Yet these lights and the slight inflections in its voice gave the impression of a distinct personality, and again, real human-like intelligence. Peter Tuddenham, the voice actor for Orac and Zen, in an interview with Blake’s 7 magazine in the 1980s, stated that of the two, Zen was his favourite. Orac, he felt, had merely taken on the personality of its creator, Ensor, who was also tetchy, pedantic and professorial. Zen’s personality was a more natural growth of the machine’s basic nature. It could have become human-like, but had deliberately held back and remained as it was.

And back in the 1970s and ’80s, 2000 AD also gave their own very comic version of what form robot accommodation for humans would take in the Robohunter strip. This followed the adventures of Sam Slade, that’s ‘S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’, as he attempted to combat robot crime. In the first story, Slade found himself despatched to the distant planet, Verdus. This had been occupied by robots in preparation for human colonisation. The robots, however, had refused to recognise the colonists as humans on the grounds that humans would obviously be superior to them in the every way. When the human colonists turned up, the robots found that they were instead weaker, and less intelligent. They concluded that they must somehow be ‘sims’, simulated humans, sent to deceive them for some purpose they didn’t understand. As a result, humans were rounded up into concentration camps to be experimented on and culled. Slade managed to break out, find the original robot sent to colonise the planet, who duly recognised and testified that he was indeed human. This convinced some of the robots that the Sims were humans, while others remained unconvinced. A war broke out between the two sides, which was only stopped by Slade destroying every robot on Verdus. This restored peace, but left his employers furious.

All this makes the strip seem grimmer than it actually was. The strip, scripted by long-time 2000 AD writer John Wagner, and drawn by Ian Gibson, was funny and satirical with a distinct cartoonish quality. On Verdus, everything was done by robots. There was a robot parliament, occupied by deranged and moronic MPs, like the Stupid Parties, which existed solely to provide comic amusement to the planet’s true leader, Big Brain. There was a robot archbishop and chief rabbi, demanding rights for Sims as God’s creatures. The robot armies included stereotypical ‘Colonel Blimp’ generals, while members of the robot constabulary in Robopoly, a robot board game, where also corrupt and brutal, following several real police scandals of the time. There were also robot singers and TV stars, like Frankie Droid, and Valve Doonican, a pastiche of the Irish singer, Val Doonican, who had his own show on British television at the time.

In the last couple of decades, a number of computer entrepreneurs and SF writers have predicted that eventually, everything will have computers chips in and so be computer controlled. The Robohunter strip also depicted that possibility, but gave it its own, twisted slant. In the page below, Slade and his diminutive sidekick, Kidd, on the run from the robots break into an apartment. Once inside, they find that everything, from the kettle, to footwear and furniture, is a robot.

Robohunter Pic 1

What makes this interesting, and extremely funny, is that all these machines have their own personalities. They talk and argue. They discuss whether Slade and Kidd are really human, or just Sims, and then decide to put it to the vote whether they should turn them in or not.

This is absolutely unlike the real robot hotel. For all the talk about Artificial Intelligence, the machines there aren’t really sentient. They respond in a very limited way to a set of instructions. These may be verbal or keyed in. Unlike the fictional machines, there is no ‘I’, no sense of self lurking within the chips and circuit boards. And no real understanding of what they’re doing either. It’s just one set of circuits responding to a certain stimulus according to its programme or wiring. They’re moving mannequins, rather than the artificial people of SF.

So instead of the robotic maniacs of Verdus, what is instead presented is something far more like the antiseptic, alienated futures of Stanley Kubrick’s SF films. In 2001 everything is gleaming white, clean, and sterile. People speak, but don’t actually communicate or really say anything much at all. And that was deliberate. Clarke had told Kubrick that he had trouble writing dialogue for the movie. Kubrick told him not to worry. He liked it stilted, as he saw the people in this future as brittle and alienated. They had reached a high stage of technological sophistication but had little human warmth or empathy in their social interactions themselves. Critics have commented that the only real personality in the movie is that of Hal, the murderous computer.

The programme’s presented states that the increasing use of robots in Japan is driven by the need to cut labour costs. I dare say that’s part of it, but not quite what has been said elsewhere. Japan actually has a labour shortage, partly caused by a falling birth rate and strongly traditional attitudes against women in the workplace. As a result, there’s been campaigns not only to introduce robots into Japanese industry, but also to humanise them, to get the other, human members of the workforce to accept them as a fellow being, rather than just a machine.

And for all the country’s immense technological sophistication and ingenuity, it’s actually extremely reluctant to implement mechanisation itself as comprehensively as its competitors in the West have done. Way back in the 1990s I read a book on Japan written by a Times journalist. The author stated that while in the West were used to computer checkouts, if you went into a Japanese shop or the post office, the clerk there would be using old fashioned ledgers. The Japanese had worked out that if they fully automated their industry, it would put half their workers out of a job. And the actual numbers of robots in Japan may well be colossally exaggerated. Geoff Simons in his book Robots: The Question for Living Machines, states that most of the what the Japanese call robots are what in the west are viewed as machine tools. The impression I have is that the Japanese love robots, but want to introduce them as an addition to the human workers, not as a replacement.

The film shows the journalist enjoying the robot actors and dancers at a carnival or nightclub. Alongside some machines, are people dressed as robots, playing at them. This strikes me as what visitors to a robot hotel would really want from the experience – real humans alongside the machines, and the machines themselves to be more like personalities than just simple automatic mechanisms. The danger there is that if you did give robots personalities, you run the risk of creating miserable robots like the eternally depressed Marvin, the Paranoid Android. He was a ‘personality prototype’. ‘You can tell, can’t you?’ as he himself put it.

I’ve no doubt that the ruthless logic of capitalism means that there’ll be more of these hotels in the future. I think there’s already another like it in Los Angeles. But in the meantime I think human-run premises probably offer a better service. At least they have real cooks, rather than vending machines.

Vox Political’s Personal Tribute To Terry Pratchett

March 13, 2015

Yesterday Terry Pratchett, one of Britain’s greatest and most prolific writers of genre fantasy, shuffled off this mortal coil. Mike over at Vox Political has posted his personal memories of meeting the great man, and the inspiration he gave him for pursuing a career as a writers. It’s simply called Personal thoughts on the legacy of Terry Pratchett and begins

You’re probably wondering how this ties in to politics. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

I first met Terry Pratchett at Forever People on Park Street, Bristol, on the afternoon of September 20, 1986 (if I recall correctly). It was the day of the big fire at the Fowler’s Motorcycles outlet on the Bath Bridge, which makes it an easy date to check. My recollection is that the blaze had not really got started as my brother (the blogger Beastrabban) and I on our way into town, so ‘that Discworld guy’ was much more interesting.

We arrived early, which meant nobody else had arrived by the time Terry did. This was 1986, remember – he was only just getting started. This meant we had him all to ourselves for a good few minutes before anybody else appeared to hesitantly proffer a copy of The Light Fantastic for his squiggle – and nothing’s going to make as great an impression on an impressionable adolescent trying to work out how to make it in the world as a few minutes with the undivided attention of someone who has literally just worked it out.

This was before Terry evolved into the personality he became – the bald beardie with the big black hat and the weakness for banana daiquiri. Obviously he was bald (genetics) and he was bearded (aesthetics) but the rest was yet to reveal itself (unless the memory cheats).

We talked about ideas, work ethics, how to keep people interested (basically, it has to interest you first). By the time we – reluctantly – left, the motorbike place was blazing like Ankh-Morpork in the very first Discworld story (The Colour of Magic) and we had to take a detour to avoid it. My brain had already taken a somewhat longer diversion that would lead to amateur journalism, professional newspaper reporting, and eventually this blog.

I also remember first seeing Terry Pratchett with Mike back in 1986 at Forever People in Bristol, though I’d completely forgotten about the fire at Fowler’s. Forever People was one of those small, independent comic shops that existed before Forbidden Planet expanded to just about corner that area of retailing. It has, unfortunately, vanished. It was how I think comics shops should be – stuffed full of the mainstream and the bizarre, with the weird novelties in the windows, role-playing games and TSR miniatures of wizards, warriors and orcs on tables on the ground floor, and rubber monsters and plastic models of artefacts and creatures from SF movies hanging from the ceiling or adorning the walls. It was also slightly disreputable. It was permeated with a musty smell from old comic back issues, and was also regularly raided by the police for stocking magazines and literature on drugs.

Terry was on the second floor, signing copies of his books. I can’t remember now whether Mike brought one he already had, or picked one up while he was there and had the great man sign it. I think it was the latter. What I do remember was catching sight of Terry himself, sat behind the desk, saying to the person in front of him, ‘Well, the Bambleweeny 47 sub-meson brain is important’, while the long queue snaked away. The shop was packed, though that wasn’t particularly hard as nearly every inch of available space stuffed full of books, magazines and merchandising. I was amazed! He was a fan of Hitch-Hiker, just like I was! Mike duly took the book to the counter, got it signed, and we left.

I saw Terry several times again over the years. As Mike says, I went to College in Cheltenham, which has a massive literary festival at which Terry became a regular speaker. The first time I saw him I think he was speaking at the town hall. He appeared wearing his characteristic broad-brimmed, black hat and the black ‘Tel-shirt’ with death strumming a guitar. Just as he got to the lectern and was about to begin speaking, someone came up to him and gave him a banana daiquiri. He thanked them, and explained that it came from a question he and Neil Gaiman had been asked when they were together writing Good Omens. They’d both been asked what they would most like to be given. Gaiman said simply, ‘Money’, while Pratchett said, ‘A banana daiquiri’. He joked that since then, he’d got seven banana daiquiris, and Gaiman hadn’t seen a penny. So there, if someone asks you that question in future, keep to the drinks. You just might get what you want that way.

His topic was the nature of comedy, and how repetition and deliberate references can be used in humour. He said that his style was influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, and gave as an example of how repetition can b4e funny he gave the example of an incident one of the great explorers gave of one of their party telling the same, unfunny story every night until the rest of the party started falling about laughing. It was the story of a man, who left to go to work, but didn’t pack his lunch. When it got to lunch time, he looked for his lunch box. It wasn’t there. He was stupid. That’s more or less the entire story, as it was told. Terry described how the first time it was told, nobody laughed. The next night, there was something like a giggle, the night after that a few more pieces of weak laughter, until at the end of the week people were falling over themselves laughing at what was really a pathetically weak story.

He also discussed the way he deliberately put in references to other bits of popular culture in his books. Like in Guards, Guards!, one of Ankh-Morpork’s finest points a crossbow at one of the villains and says, ‘I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire five bolts or six. Well, frankly I can’t remember. Do you feel lucky, punk?’ He also talked about the inspiration for the dragon in one of his other books. These were taken by a group of young women, who appeared at one convention at which he was speaking. They were all Anne McCaffrey fans, and had stuffed dragons sitting on their shoulders. He said it was obvious that McCaffrey’s dragons were a feminist metaphor, and very good thing too. But it also struck him that the problem with a dragon that sat on your shoulder would be that its fiery breath would singe one side of your face, while it would also defecate down your back.

The next time I was him at the festival was a few years later. He described how Fantasy was still very much looked down on in literary circles. One of the festival’s organisers when talking to him had looked at him as if, in Pratchett’s words, he was about to talk about fixing motorcycles. His talk was on the nature of Fantasy, and he had some fairly forthright comments about Tolkien. Like if when you’re thirteen, you don’t consider The Lord of the Rings to be the greatest book in the world, there’s something wrong with you. And if you still consider The Lord of the Rings to be the greatest book in the world when you’re 33, there’s something really wrong with you. It was in this talk that he described some of the class bias in Tolkien’s work, such as the idealisation of the Shire, while the Orcs were foul and nasty and ‘almost as bad as people from Birmingham!’ One of the speakers on BBC’s The One Show said a few years ago in a piece about Tolkien and the local places that inspired the geography of Middle Earth, that one of the emotional factors behind its writing was Tolkien’s own fear of the urban sprawl from Birmingham overwhelming the semi-rural suburb in which he grew up. It was at this talk, that Terry made the point Mike mentioned – that the ending of the Lord of the Rings is quite daft, because in conquering Sauron they’d destroyed the industrial base for half a continent. But hey, it’s alright, because they’ve got a king back!

He also said that magic itself was actually quite boring. It simply did what it did. What he found really fascinating was the organisational magic by which people came together to produce nails, and other items, which other people then went on to use to create further objects, quite without the planning of the original producers, and which all led to the complexities of modern life and culture. At that time he was also pessimistic about the state of Fantasy literature. This was several years before J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman came forward to re-invigorate it with Harry Potter and the Amber Spyglass. I think he thought at the time that it was more or less dead. I certainly remember him describing himself as ‘a big, hairy maggot crawling over its corpse’. Of course he was far from that.

I was talking to a friend of mine about Pratchett and his work a little while ago, and he surprised me as he’d also met him. This particular friend is a fan of Role-Playing Games. He’s written several game books himself, and knows personally many of the people behind some of the games companies. He’d met Terry a decade or so previously, when one of his friends was looking for inspiration behind a line of Fantasy figurines he was crafting. He was looking for a character on which he could base a wizard, and so wrote to Terry asking him if he could use Rincewind. Terry agreed. He later met Terry along with the rest of the RPGers in the pub. He liked and admired Pratchett personally, because he was also good to his fans. He was protective of them, and seemed genuinely grateful simply that there were people who read and liked his work.

He was also very used to the kind of weirdness that might have other people running for the hills. At one of the Cheltenham festivals he talked about how he encountered a group of Viking re-enactors while out walking with his small daughter. As they were going through the countryside, they noticed a group of young men in chain mail running up and down and hitting each other with swords. One of them came running up to him, and asked him if he could lend them a cup. They’d been fighting for a little while, and were now thirsty. Terry said, yes, and got out his daughter’s Asterix the Gaul lunchbox, and gave them the cup from her Obelix flask. The Viking warrior thanked them, went off to a nearby standpipe, and he and the other Norsemen duly quaffed deep of the water before returning the cup to Terry and his daughter.

Later that day, Pratchett met them in the pub. They were curious about him. Most people, they said, took one look at them when they were out fighting, and fled in the opposite direction. But he hadn’t been at all bothered. Why? Well, said Terry, it was because he reasoned that anyone mad enough to do what they were doing was obviously far too mad actually to harm anyone. He went on ‘Nobody ever says when they find a serial killer, ‘Oh, we knew he was a bad ‘un, because he had a wardrobe full of uniforms and last week he went to a convention. No! They always say, ‘He was a quiet one. And then they find the load of human skulls in the sink.’

He also wasn’t afraid of bikers either. At one convention he was warned by others in the crowd that there were a group of Hell’s Angels in the queue. Well, he met them, and they weren’t. He said they were just a group of polite young men, who wanted to talk about his book and liked motorcycles. Perhaps this is where the Cheltenham literati got the impression that he was going to talk about fixing bikes.

In his fiction, Pratchett created baroque worlds with wit and good humour, taking the motifs of genre literature and then transforming them again to bring out something fresh, producing a bizarre, comic cavalcade of strange gods, wizards, witches, trolls, warrior women, warriors and mobile, predatory luggage. Oh yes, and people from the Counterweight Continent selling In-Sewer-Ance Polly-Seas, all infused with an equally bizarre logic. For example, in Pyramids he concluded that camels have to be experts in quantum physics because of the mathematical intricacies of the way they walked. The world he created with words, and which his illustrator, Josh Kirby, painted, was one of colour, absurdity, and laughter. Although the strongest, and most obvious influences on his work were Tolkien and Conan, it was also like the very best fiction in that it appealed to people of all ages. It wasn’t only children who read them, but also their parents and grandparents.

Mike says in his piece that it kept him sane while he was at College. I think that’s probably true of a lot of people. The world can be a horrifyingly grim place, and there is a lot of pressure on young people. It was certainly the case when I was at school, and things seem to have got worse since then. It really doesn’t surprise me that one quarter of all university students will suffer from depression or some mental health problem during their time at uni. Pratchett’s fiction offers an escape from all that, away from grim reality into a unreality that may also be grim, but is at least comically so. And like good fiction, it isn’t just mere escapism, but often makes a serious point while making you laugh at the same time.

RIP big man. May you rest with the great bards in the celestial realms as one of the great, modern skalds of Middle Earth.

The Beginning of Ro-Busters for Real?

February 7, 2015

I found this story on Sky News today at http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/other/humanoid-robot-firefighter-tested-by-us-navy/ar-AA91Hqb?ocid=OIE9HP, reporting the testing of a 5′ 11″ humanoid robot by the American navy. It’s an android fireman, and it’s hoped that it will help stop having to send real human firefighters into extremely dangerous situations.

Robusters Cover

Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein and friends

This sounds like the beginning of Ro-Busters to me.

Ro-Busters is a long-running strip in the SF comic, 2000 AD. It’s about a team of robot emergency workers sent in to tackle disasters that are far too hazardous for humans. The main characters are Ro-Jaws, a somewhat crude sewerdroid, and Hammerstein, a former soldier robot left over from the Volgan Wars. Hammerstein, known in his glory days in the ABC Warriors as ‘Old Red Eyes’, has been mentally scarred by his experiences, and suffers flashbacks and depression. He can, however, be cheered up by being given his old head to hold, which usually prompts him to start telling another tale of his military adventures.

Howard Quartz

The group is owned by Howard Quartz, aka ‘Mr 10 Per Cent’, a multi-billionaire businessman and highly shady character, so called because some kind of accident has left him only 10 per cent human. He’s now just a human brain in a robot body, though show that he’s still a member of the British business class by sporting a bowler hat and brolly. Well, you gotta keep up appearances in front of the staff and the proles, haven’t you?

Mek Quake

Ten Per Cent is an extremely harsh taskmaster, and any robot that fails to meet his extremely high performance targets is sent on a one-way journey down to Mek-Quake. This is a giant, sadistic, but immensely stupid robot bulldozer, who tears his victims apart, all the while shouting ‘Big jobs! Big jobs!’ as he does so. While the robot’s brains are discarded, Mek-Quake retains their bodies as a kind of wardrobe. Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein have been sent down to meet him many times, but manage to outwit him, which has made the machine even more desperate to get its grabs into them.

The original idea for the strip was to have a group of robots ‘doing Biggles-type things, like capping volcanoes’ and so on. The strip’s creators, including the veteran comic writer, Pat Mills, took this basic idea and gave it their own, countercultural and anti-authoritarian spin. The robots themselves are courageous with a strong sense of justice. They are, however, slaves, whose very lives hang in the balance according to how their boss feels, and whether their actions match his expectations and balance sheet that day. 10 Per Cent is a very shady character with a background in arms dealing.

It’s repeatedly shown how badly robots are treated, as non-human slaves, by humans. In one story in the 1980s, Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein along with a group of other robots, including a mechanic doctor called Doctor Feeley-Good, attempted to escape, to flee to a free robot colony on one of Saturn’s Moons. The robots there had been gold miners, but had rebelled against their human masters and defeated them all. As a sign of their freedom, they coated themselves in gold.

Robuster disaster

Through Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein and the mechanical comrades, Mills and O’Neil, one of the strip’s artists, explored issues such as corporate power and greed, the British class system, and racism and slavery. All packed into a strip, which had our heroes sent into rescue people trapped in mile-high skyscrapers that had been hit by cargo rockets taking nuclear waste into space, or down into the London Underground to save the passengers in trains. Running through the strip was a subversive sense of humour, which saw Ro-Jaws shouting ‘knickers’ at various points, and scrawling his own rebellious graffiti to take their enemies down a peg or two. In this mechanical double act, Hammerstein was the straight man, vainly trying to keep his errant friend in line and make him behave with at least some decorum.

I don’t believe that the robot now being tested by the American navy is up to the standards of the sentient machines of SF just yet. I think it’ll be a long time, if ever, before they are. But it’s an intriguing development, nonetheless.

As for Ro-Busters, I do feel it would make an excellent movie. MSN news reported at the beginning of the year that there are 25 movies based on comic strips coming out this year. We’ve already had robot heroes in several movies, most obviously transformers, but also Wall-E, and going back to the ’50s, a film starring Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet. It would be great if Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein and their mechanical chums also got a chance at the limelight. Eh, humes?