On Aliens and Men

I’m about to head down to perform at the Brisbane Writers festival in a few weeks, but in the interim I have been brainstorming a couple of theatre projects and possible screenplay between the next big novel idea. Fertile time. It’s always liberating to come from under the yoke of a big epic commitment like Sphinx and let the imagination play for a couple of months before diving underwater again into the initial research and the psychological hijacking that seems to incur when immersed in writing a big fat novel.

But in between all this seed planting and gathering a couple of other works have grabbed me. The first is a history book – written by an economist, which tracks the cycles – feast, famine and population of Europe (and related colonies) from the 13th century through to the 19th century – ‘The Great Wave’ by David Hackett Fischer. For many this book will read like a shopping list of woes (with graphs)  – harvest failure, plague, starvation and revolution. But if you’re a fast reader like myself it is extraordinary documentation that joins the dots in terms of culture, economic and climate for the layperson like myself.  What becomes apparent is how horribly resonant some of the cycles are – i.e.: periods of posterity when the rich get very rich and the poor begin to literally starve then top this off with a few bad crops due to climatic change and you have the perfect recipe for bloody revolution. Or the collapse of the Italian banking boom in Siena in 1298 when they had overextended borrowing to the great merchants, nobles and kings (then the equivalent of world banks) which lead to a hike in food prices and commodities, topped by horrible weather and failed crops in early 13th century – leaving most people starving then introduce the black plague, and you have the catastrophe of 1315 and the following years. Not an era I would have like to lived through.
I’ve always thought history should be compulsory at school and reading this book only confirms this. Foresight is to be forewarned, and although the tools are different – the rules, greed and fallout appear completely contemporary. The Great Wave also has great footnotes and clear global references, great read for the amateur historian or fact collector.  I mean who would have known that Eskimos kayaking off the coast of Scotland were sighted during the ‘mini Ice Age’. Or that J.S Bach’s lifespan mirrors almost exactly the economic equilibrium of the Enlightenment. It was certainly a revelation to me that humanity has always been at the mercy of climate change.

The other work that has really blown me away was the movie District 9 (yet to open in UK and Australia). I don’t think I’ve seen intelligent sci-fi like this for decades (maybe ever). For the squeamish, or haters of alien movies don’t be put off. This is a moving treatise on racism, the internment of refugees, a condemnation of the weapons industry and a friggin’ glorious celebration of independent film making that has Hollywood jittery. Although made for 30mUS it was made outside of the studio system (Sony picked it up for distribution after it was made) with the visionary Peter Jackson at the helm as midwife/producer. Directed by South African 29-year-old Neill Blomkamp (who has a background in special effects) and written by Terri Tatchell and Blomkamp it is by far the cleverest film of this genre I’m seen. And as the stepmother of three teenage boys I get to see a lot. Blomkamp manages to subvert the traditional demonization of Crustacean-like aliens (avoiding the schmaltzy isn’t he cute Spielberg trap) in a beautifully paced arch as his everyman hero Sharlto Copley (who hadn’t even acted in a feature before) ends up avertedly fighting for his own ‘humanity’ and battling an insidiously (and utterly believable) global weapons company. The fact that it is set in a real shantytown in Jo-burg (with the huge alien craft eerily hanging over the city like some futuristic abandoned Noah’s Arc) is genius and gives extraordinary resonance and insight into the poor bastards that live in places like these all over the globe. Go see it.  It haunts.

For Brisbane readers and anyone else interest – info on my appearances at the Brisbane Writers festival go to www.Brisbanewritersfestival.com.au and hit on my name – under L for Learner.