The Best Speculative Ozploitation Gems

Until the 1970s, Australian film was a moribund art form (bar the odd exception). However, with the election of the Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 came all manner of beneficial social changes, not the least of which was the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School, the Australia Council for the Arts, and the Australian Film Commission. Coincidentally, these initiatives coincided with a publicly-accepted relaxation of prudish censorship laws and the introduction of the new R rating, resulting in a reinvigorated film industry that enjoyed both public and governmental support, which was the beginning of what many now call the Australian New Wave movement. Alongside this movement, whose practitioners embraced both a social-realist and art-film ethos, was another movement emerging from the margins: Ozploitation.

A slang portmanteau of the words “Australia” and “exploitation,” Ozploitation is essentially a catch-all term for Australian exploitation films that emerged in this period, which were greatly influenced by American B-films of the 1950s, the “New Hollywood” films of the 1960s ushered in by young filmmakers keen to challenge the status quo, and the emerging punk/DIY ethic that was slowly becoming a dominant mode of cultural expression throughout the 1970s. Typically categorised by low budgets and a “raw” aesthetic, Ozploitation covered everything from science fiction to horror, action to “ocker” comedies and frisky sex romps to creature features, and focused on Australian issues of the time rather than recreations or examinations of our past. As renowned film academic Sam Rodhie stated: “Ozploitation films set about projecting not a nostalgic rural Australian beauty, but the vulgarity, philistinism and energy of contemporary Australia. These were not the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, or a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume.”

With that in mind, let’s turn to what I consider the best speculative Ozploitation gems.

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

The first feature from acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir – Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Gallipoli (1981), Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the Sea (2003) – The Cars That Ate Paris has been called many things: Blackly comic, disturbing, satirical, macabre, slow and deliberate, bizarre, surreal, and bleak. Considered a low-budget oddity on its release, in the years since it has achieved cult status and is now considered a herald of the changing nature of Australian film, from the “distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, or a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume” to a dark reflection of contemporary Australian attitudes, values and prejudices.

Set in the fictional town of Paris (an isolated outback community only accessible by way of winding mountain roads and narrow tracks), it concerns the key economic driver perpetuated by the townsfolk: Forcing tourists and lost travelers to crash their cars on the winding roads and passes, salvaging valuables from the wrecks, and using them as currency or barter. It’s a town where the normal rules of Western society don’t apply, facilitated by its remoteness and isolated nature.

So far so typically Australian, you might say – the trope of remote towns operating by their own rules is fairly standard in both our stories and history. However, what sets The Cars That Ate Paris apart is that Paris’ citizens, from ordinary working folk right up to the mayor, aren’t written as monsters or villains, but instead as ordinary people just trying to keep their town alive. Almost to a one, they are framed as friendly, nonthreatening and decent, despite the fact that they are basically psychopaths whose existence depends on death and destruction. And this is the film’s beauty. Despite Weir’s grotesque imagery, stately composition and off-the-wall conceit, at its core the film is really a social parable about the divide between rural and urban communities, the economic stagnation of the former and the dissociative effects of consumerism on them, and the repressive and outwardly bizarre nature of close-knit societies.

The Last Wave (1977)

The second film from Peter Weir on this list, The Last Wave examines the cultural divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the face of an impending apocalypse, and the consequences of a non-Indigenous Australian denial of an Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of people, animals, spirits and the land being intertwined.

It is, in many ways, a lurid and hallucinatory fever dream, a morally complex police procedural, and a clear-eyed look at race politics in modern Australian society, filled with incredible compositions, surreal imagery and a dark and murky “look.” Telling the story of David Burton, a non-Indigenous Australian lawyer defending five Indigenous Australians against charges of ritualised murder, it focuses on just how out of his depth he is when confronted with an Indigenous Australian belief system that prophecises a coming apocalypse, challenges his worldview and sense of cultural identity, and is both steeped in the supernatural and undeniably real (within the context of the film).

A startling and criminally underrated film that is unsettling and ambiguous, it is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation and paved the way for other films that sympathetically attempted to bridge the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of perceiving and understanding the world.

Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Unarguably the most well known and influential example of Ozploitation, George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy is a classic of post-apocalyptic cinema, and remains one of the most financially and critically successful Australian film franchises in history. A true master of visual storytelling, Miller combined kinetic camerawork, a “raw” mise-en-scene and rhythmic editing with eye-popping stunts, car crashes and car chases, to create a post-apocalyptic world that is vivid, brutal and undeniably “Australian.” Each film is its own kind of masterpiece, as the combination of Miller’s cinematic techniques, narrative economy and simple (but never simplistic) through-lines allow the world of Mad Max to open up around us, rather than simply get served up to us.

The original Mad Max showed us a world teetering on the edge of collapse, in which the roads are ruled by roving gangs and the few police still remaining are almost as crazy as the criminals they chase. The Road Warrior explored this world after the collapse, with society reduced to a kind-of punk savagery in which crazies and survivors are left to scavenge in the wasteland left behind. Beyond Thunderdome opened this wasteland world up even further, delivering a new kind of community built from the ruins of the old, a lawless and wild place without even a veneer of civilisation.

The world of Mad Max is one in which the car is king, gasoline the most valuable commodity and civilisation a forgotten dream. It is as punk as Johnny Rotten sniffing glue with Johnny Ramone; as brash and inventive as that of a suburban backyard full of DIY geniuses; and as tongue-in-cheek “Australian” as Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin wrestling over a crocodile. In its own words, it is a world “where the gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice, and in this maelstrom of decay ordinary men were battered and smashed.”

Road Games (1981)

Eschewing the frantic visual style common to so many exploitation and Ozploitation films, director Richard Franklin combined moody compositions that emphasised scale and vastness, stately and slow camerawork, remote and unpopulated settings, and tension and suspense to infuse Road Games with an almost Hitchcockian vibe. As well, he employed a narrative device that was common to what might be called realist Ozploitation, but had yet to be used in the more speculative variety: Centering the story on a foreigner in the Australian outback, and thereby allowing the peculiarities, idiosyncrasies and Australian-isms of the characters within to be seen with fresh eyes. First used in Ozploitation in Wake in Fright (1971) and Walkabout (1971), this device allows us to enter the story right alongside the main character, and is a version of the “stranger in a strange land” trope, a storytelling device as old as history itself.

Centered on American expatriate truck driver Pat Quid, it begins in a realistic way: Hauling refrigerated meat across the emptiness of the outback, Pat entertains himself with thought-games concerning the lives and activities of other drivers sharing the road. One day, a suspicious green van catches his eye, which he later comes to believe is involved in a series of unsolved murders up and down the highways and byways. Soon after picking up hitchhiking American tourist Pam, the local police begin to suspect Pat of the murders; with Pam’s encouragement, he becomes embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game with the driver of the green van in an effort to clear his name. What follows is buttock-clenching tension juxtaposed with the foreboding and desolate expanse of the Australian outback, as the conflict between Pat and Pam and the driver of the green van escalates in a land where help is nowhere nearby and thus Pat and Pam have no choice but to rely solely on their wits.

A masterclass of understated film-making, Road Games is the perfect example of how space can define subject, and how the Australian landscape can be a character all of its own.

Razorback (1984)

Razorback is a perfect blend of dark “Ocker” humour, hyper-stylised visuals and small town creature-feature – think Wake in Fright (1971) meets Jaws (1975) via Alvin Purple (19726) and The Evil Dead (1981), and you’re on the right track.

The first feature from music video director Russell Mulcahy, it features an aesthetic philosophy common to exploitation films throughout history and borne of their typically low budgets: Go for broke. Underpinned by a tongue-in-cheek screenplay that played up its exploitation influences and ambitions, and full of kinetic camerawork, POV shots, frantic editing, bustling backgrounds, a “lived in” atmosphere, colour saturation, extreme close-ups and a cacophonous sound design, it is a truly jarring and unique movie.

Just like Walkabout (1971), Wake in Fright (1971) and Road Games (1981), Razorback is centered on a foreigner in the Australian outback. This time, it’s Carl Winters, a grief-stricken American who has traveled to the unnamed town in which Razorback is set, seeking answers to the death of his wife, a TV journalist who was investigating the town’s pet-food cannery. Upon arrival, he hears stories about an enormous razorback boar that preys on the townsfolk and was responsible for his wife’s death, setting in motion of chain of events that pits him against both the enormous razorback and the town’s set of Australian caricatures. And what caricatures they are! Broad and bordering on camp, they’re nonetheless invested with backslapping malice, a love of violence and beer and fear, and a dark sense of humour that carries an underlying threat, illuminating what nowadays is called toxic masculinity but back then was merely the dark underbelly of the stereotypical Aussie bloke. In combination with Mulcahy’s bravura visual style, they transform Razorback from what might have been just another b-grade Ozploitation film into something truly special: A film that both entertains us and asks big questions regarding identity, morality and parochialism.

The Quiet Earth (1985)

A cheeky addition from across the ditch, The Quiet Earth not only shares many of the qualities of Ozploitation cinema – a low budget, location shooting, a high-concept brought down to earth by relatable characters and visceral camerawork – but also helped reinvigorate the New Zealand film industry in the same way, moving it away from “the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past” towards something more urban and contemporary. And besides, it’s worthy of inclusion here because we Australians have never hesitated to claim a Kiwi property as our own – think Pavlova, Russell Crowe, Split Enz, Crowded House, Anzac Biscuits and Phar Lap.

A variant on the classic “Last Man on Earth” story, The Quiet Earth concerns a depressed scientist by the name of Zac, who awakens one day to find that the research project he works on has malfunctioned and seemingly left him alone in the world. At first, Zac tries to figure out what has happened; soon realising the futility of this quest, he instead proclaims himself a kind of god-king of his depopulated world, treating the empty city of Auckland as his own personal playground while simultaneously experiencing a type of psychological breakdown. He wanders the streets in the rain, playing saxophone rather badly. He moves into the most palatial mansion he can find, erects cardboard cut-outs of famous historical figures (including Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Alfred Hitchcock, Mahatma Gandhi, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Queen Elizabeth II, and Pope John Paul II), and preaches to them at length. He plays pool with himself, assuming two different personas in an acting masterclass that lasts bare minutes. And then, overcome with loneliness and becoming aware of the psychological damage this is inflicting, he becomes suicidal.

This is where things get weird. He meets another survivor, a woman by the name of Joanne, and they soon develop a friendship that quickly becomes something more romantic. Another survivor appears, a pragmatic and practical Maori by the name of Api. Now, this kind of love triangle is a staple of “Last Man on Earth” stories, typically employed to initiate conflict. And at first, The Quiet Earth is no different. However, as the causes behind humanity’s disappearance begin to be understood, and as Zac slowly realises that Joanne and Api are a much better match than he and Joanne, the film thematically changes in a radical way, focusing on self-realization, hope, sacrifice, ambiguity, and the metaphysical. And then there’s that ending! To say more would spoil what is a film full of surprises – it is simply a “must watch” piece of Antipodean science fiction.

Howling III: The Marsupials (1987)

The Howling (1981) was a masterpiece of 1980’s horror, featuring a blackly-comic script, confident performances, standout special effects and slick direction from horror maestro Joe Dante. But like many of its kin – Friday the 13th (1980), Poltergeist (1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Hellraiser (1987), Child’s Play (1988), and so on – its numerous sequels strongly adhered to the rule of diminishing returns. But there was an exception: Philippe Mora’s Howling III: The Marsupials. A stand-alone sequel (if you’ll pardon the contradiction), it abandoned any direct connections to the original and instead served up an original story that can really only be described as “bat-shit crazy.”

A brief summary barely does justice to its madness, but is worth a shot anyway. Anthropology professor Harry Beckmeyer stumbles upon archival footage showing Indigenous Australians ceremonially sacrificing a humanoid wolf-like creature, and shortly after he encounters Jerboa, an Indigenous Australian marsupial werewolf evolved from the extinct marsupial wolf (the Tasmanian Tiger). Shortly after this encounter, Jerboa is cast as the lead in a horror film shooting in Sydney and then falls pregnant to her human boyfriend, Donny. And that’s just the first fifteen or twenty minutes – what follows is a riotous hot-mess involving Russian ballerina-werewolves, werewolf nuns, werewolf hunters employed by the Australian Army, a visit to Hollywood, a time-lapse set in the Australian outback, spirits and living skeletons, and heavy-handed social commentary.

Featuring a who’s-who of Australian acting royalty of the time – Barry Otto, Frank Thring, Max Fairchild, Imogen Annesley and Barry Humphries (as Dame Edna Everage) – Howling III: The Marsupials is often considered “so bad it’s good,” a critique applied to many Ozploitation films. However, it is more than just a trash-tastic piece of cinema best enjoyed when under the influence, because Philippe Mora’s all-or-nothing approach results in a film so tongue-in-cheek and gleefully self-aware that too take it seriously is to miss the point – it’s deliberately schlocky, sending up the pomposity and pretensions of so many of the werewolf films that preceded it.

***

Following the success of Crocodile Dundee (1986), the Ozploitation wave slowly receded. No longer seen as outliers or curios, Australian films began to achieve international mainstream acceptance, with the far-out themes and styles of Ozploitation making way for more standard fare such as action, dramas and comedies, which are historically the most common and popular film genres. But this didn’t remain the case, as in the early 2000s a new wave of Australian film emerged, sharing the limelight with the aforementioned action, dramas and comedies. Directors who had grown up loving Ozploitation films – the Spierig brothers, Greg McLean, David Michod and Zak Hilditch, to name but a few – showed that we can still produce quality genre and speculative films that are distinctly Australian, as seen in works such as Undead (2003), Wolf Creek (2005), Rogue (2007), These Final Hours (2013) and The Rover (2014). In fact, so popular was this resurgence, and so well received was it by both Australian and international audiences, that George Miller of Mad Max fame returned to the world he had created way back in 1979, and in 2015 gave us Mad Max: Fury Road, a sequel that is arguably the best film in the series.

(Originally published on Speculative Fiction Australia, 18/11/2018)

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Interview with On Writing

OW: What is your favourite genre to write? Why?

LW: I’ve always written within speculative fiction: typically science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, with the odd detour.

Like many science fiction writers who grew up during the 1980s, I was a nerdy kid surrounded by a media landscape saturated with science fiction, and living through a point in time in which the genre’s terminology and motifs were being absorbed into our cultural language. To an enquiring mind that soaked up external stimuli like a sponge – especially one obsessed with books, giant monsters, Ghostbusters and Star Wars – science fiction seemed like the logical way to express and understand the influence of this changing world.

And then there’s science fiction’s ability to make us question what we know, by reframing it as a ‘what if?’ and then digging deep. To this particular fan, the ability of science fiction to open our eyes to what is by showing us what it might become, is nothing short of genius.

OW: Do you model characters after real people?

LW: I think I speak for many writers in saying that I don’t so much model my characters after real people, but rather appropriate aspects of real people and attribute them to my characters. This is certainly the case with The Rain Never Came – no single character is based on a real person, but the same can’t be said for some of their behaviours, mannerisms, figures-of-speech and peculiarities, not to mention some of the character interactions.

We’re fascinating creatures with individual habits and quirks that would seem odd, if not bizarre, to anyone but ourselves. And so, to make a character more human and alive, these habits and quirks need to shine through, even if only subtly. The trouble here is that making up a quirk or habit can seem ridiculous, even if only to ourselves – which can then have a knock-on effect on our confidence and flow.

This is why it’s okay to occasionally steal things from real life and give them to your characters – sometimes the truth really is stranger, more interesting and more convincing than fiction.

OW: Have you ever written something you didn’t like, but felt necessary for the overall story?

LW: Absolutely, as I think every writer has – there were many instances of this in The Rain Never Came, some of which anyone who has read it will recognise straightaway. But as unlikeable as these instances may be, they’re there for a reason: realism.

All writers should strive to make their stories as believable as possible, even if the events and locations therein are purely fictional or speculative. We should do our best to make them ‘real,’ especially their characters and their characters’ lives. And a large part of what makes our own lives ‘real’ are ups and downs – no life is perfectly balanced and as smooth as the proverbial, no matter the surface impression. Happiness and sadness, joy and depression, excitement and boredom, engagement and disenchantment; they are complimentary emotions that can only exist in contrast to each other.

Our stories should reflect this: good things should happen, and so should bad things. It goes without saying that we often tend to prefer writing the ‘good’ to the ‘bad’ – show me a serious writer who doesn’t invest a fair bit of emotion in their work, and I’ll show you a liar. And so it is with The Rain Never Came. Bad things happen in it, things that I didn’t particularly like writing, but they were necessary for both the story as a whole and as realistic balances to the good.

OW: Do you take criticism hard or do you have a thick skin? Have you ever received criticisms that you felt were unjustified or too harsh? Are you your worst critic?

LW: So far, most of the feedback I’ve received on The Rain Never Came has been positive, or at least encouraging. I’m ready for anything negative, though – quality is in the eye of the beholder, as some people say, and no piece of art, be it a book or a song or a movie or an actual piece of art art, is ever perfect. And nor should it be.

Luckily, I’ve got pretty thick skin. And it helps that I’m hard on myself, and push through a lot of redrafting and rewriting before showing my work around for an initial round of feedback – I don’t want someone to judge my work if it’s full of logical flaws, continuity problems, grammatical mistakes, plot holes and so on. That way, each piece is as polished as that point in time dictates, and so the feedback received is on the major elements instead of the minor.

OW: How do you keep motivated to finish a writing project?

LW: For me, the simple answer is to have another project to look forward to when I’m done. I believe that most writers have more ideas than they know what to do with – if we can harness that, and stay sharp enough to use these ideas as blueprints for future projects while still dedicating our passion to the project in front of us, then there’s always something to look forward to. Anticipation and delayed gratification: there’s sometimes no better motivator.

OW: What would be your advice for aspiring authors?

LW: There’s as much advice for aspiring authors out there as there are aspiring authors, but I’ll share a way of thinking that works for me. Writing a good book only takes a few things: a spark of talent that can be nurtured, an idea that can become a story, and discipline and routine, as well as a lot of time and a job that allows you that.

Find these things, and you’ll get there.

(Originally published on On Writing, 3/8/2018)

Interview with Alanah Andrews: Speculative Fiction Writer

AASFW: What do you write?

LW: I’ve always written within speculative fiction: typically science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, with the odd detour into weird fiction and near-fiction future.

AASFW: Why do you love speculative fiction?

LW: Like many science fiction/speculative fiction writers who grew up in the 1980s, I was a nerdy kid surrounded by a media landscape saturated with science fiction and speculative fiction, at a point in time in which science fiction’s terminology and motifs were being absorbed into our cultural dialect and acquiring real-world symbolism. To an enquiring mind that soaked up external stimuli like a sponge – especially a mind obsessed with books, giant monsters, Ghostbusters and Doctor Who – the language of science fiction and speculative fiction seemed like the logical way to understand the world, its rapid rate of change and our increasingly intertwined relationship with technology.

And then there’s science fiction and speculative fiction’s ability to make us question what we know, by reframing it as a ‘what if?’ and then digging deep. To this particular fan, their ability to open our eyes to what is by showing us what it might become, is nothing short of genius.

AASFW: Tell us about your latest release.

LW: My debut novel The Rain Never Came has recently been released, and is available from all the usual places.

A hybrid of dystopian, post-apocalyptic and climate fiction, The Rain Never Came blends these genre elements with an unmistakably Australian voice, to create a distinctive work that touches on Australian issues old and new: mateship, egalitarianism, attitudes to authority, community, climate change and refugees.

To sum it up: When sunburnt Australia becomes well and truly scorched, a forced evacuation of the East Coast is the only answer. Those who resist, like Bill Cook and Tobe Cousins, hide out in small country towns, eking out an existence. But some embittered by the drought are seeking revenge, and Bill and Tobe are in their way.

Set in the vast expanse of the dry Australian bush, there is no more perfect place to situate the end of the world.

AASFW: What would you do if an alien spaceship landed in your back yard?

LW: Probably ask the crew it if they would come in for a cuppa.

AASFW: What inspired the latest book you are writing?

LW: My love of science fiction, and my tendency to get lost in it. To say any more would be to spoil it – it’s still cooking, so to speak.

AASFW: In 100 years, what will the world will look like?

LW: The optimist in me wants to say that it’ll be a shiny, happy place in which most of today’s problems have been solved or at least lessened. After all, we already have in our grasp the solutions to many of these problems – climate change, hunger, poverty, war, intolerance and its related phobias – but vested interests and humanity’s insatiable need for power are standing in the way of implementing them. I would hope that in 100 years, humanity will be have become a little more enlightened and come to the conclusion that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (to appropriate a Star Trek-ism).

But the pessimist in me believes that things will be pretty-much as they are today, only more extreme.

AASFW: What book are you reading at the moment?

LW: I have what you would probably call a magpie-mind when it comes to my reading. Although I primarily write speculative fiction, science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, I’ll read anything that has the promise of literary potential: realist fiction, westerns, YA fiction, horror, literary fiction, thrillers, non-fiction and, obviously, speculative fiction in its all myriad forms. I’ve even been known to read the odd romance.

I also tend to usually have three or four books on the go at the same time. And so to finally answer your question, right now I’m reading Company by Max Barry (a devastatingly funny corporate satire that straddles the border between realist fiction and speculative fiction), The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made by David Hughes (which is eye-opening in the extreme – how obscenely frustrating the film industry must be), and The Complete Short Stories by JG Ballard (an epic two-volume collection, which is a slow read due to its length but an absolute must for those love who their science fiction cold, clinical and psychologically-oriented).

AASFW: If we want to stay up to date with your writing or buy your books, where can we find you?

LW: I’m not much of a blogger, but I do have a website that’s chock-a-block with information on The Rain Never Came (including purchase links), and also features my published short fiction, science fiction criticism, previous interviews and music reviews. You can find that right here: www.lachlanwalter.com

For all the latest news on upcoming publications and events, as well as literature/language-based humour, genre-inspired trivia and memes, and assorted and infrequent musings, you can find me on Facebook and Twitter:

www.facebook.com/LachWalter79/ and www.twitter.com/LachWalter79

(Originally published on Alanah Andrews: Speculative Fiction Writer, 25/7/2018)

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project – The Unlistening Place

Like an itch you can’t scratch or that word on the tip of your tongue or those builders renovating the house next door, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s ‘The Unlistening Place’ just won’t let you be.

A self-described “cryptic ensemble from the American Midwest,” Fossil Aerosol Mining Project have been active since the 1980s, releasing unsettling works that combine eclectic found sounds, obscure tape loops, tortuously-manipulated samples, murky electronics, treated snippets from film and television, abrasive synthetic squalls and decaying audio frequencies.

The end result? Collage-style soundscapes that, at first, seem like little more than random aural juxtapositions and experimental noise-works. However, a closer and deeper listen reveals patterns, orbits and spirals within each record’s assumed arbitrary nature, with each piece/track referencing those that came before it, so that by the time each record has reached its conclusion it has revealed itself to be a kind-of holistic whole.

And so it is with ‘The Unlistening Place’: to view or approach each piece/track in isolation is to do a disservice to the album in its entirety. A fitting analogy here is to image ‘The Unlistening Place’ as a building – you wouldn’t look at a brick or sheet of plaster or floorboard as an encapsulation of a whole house, and nor should the individual pieces/tracks of ‘The Unlistening Place’ be heard as a representation of the album as a whole. Instead, you need to simply sit and absorb it from beginning to end, letting it flow through you and wash over you. Only then does its brilliance become apparent.

The music within ‘The Unlistening Place’ definitely isn’t for everyone, even those with a bent for the unusual, experimental or flat-out bizarre (if you can even call Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s work music – sound art is a much more appropriate descriptor). However, if you’re after something that will take you on a strange and unnerving journey, then look no further.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 17/5/2018)

 Too Much Gun

From the heat rays of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the phasers of Star Trek; from the blasters of Star Wars to the Lawgiver of the Judge Dredd comics; from the smart guns and pulse rifles of Aliens (1986) to the Needler of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Rat; the gun in one of its many forms has always been a part of science fiction. It can act as the initiator of conflict (after all, conflict is at the heart of every story) or as a means of resolving conflict. It can possess symbolic value, for example: a character’s casual proficiency in its use can symbolise the depths to which this character will stoop or the brute nature underlying their personality, while a character’s lack of proficiency in its use can symbolise this character’s innocence or the peaceful undercurrents permeating their personality. It can help establish a story’s sense of futurism, by featuring technological advances or improvements beyond those currently possible. And it can simply be a part of a story’s milieu—guns are a part of the world we live in, whether we like it or not, just like bananas and oil rigs and pelicans and the many other things that make up the tapestry that we call life. Any writer must at least consider this fact, especially if they want the world they are creating to be as realistic as possible—the absence of the gun in a story can be almost as telling as an over-reliance upon it.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we encountered this absence a little more often? Aside from the odd examples—Moon, the television show Humans, Interstellar, Arrival—nowadays the gun too-often becomes the only way of initiating and resolving conflict and so possesses few if any other narrative qualities, at least in terms of science fiction films and television. Rather than acting as a small part of a writer’s fictional world, possessing symbolic or futuristic value, or being merely one possibility among many in the search for a way to initiate and resolve conflict, the gun seems to be an end unto itself.

However, science fiction through the ages is replete with stories in which the gun isn’t the primary focus, and is instead merely an aspect of each story’s narrative mise-en-scene, if you will; and stories in which the gun chiefly exists for its symbolic value, both good and bad; and stories in which its sole purpose is to help bed-down the story’s futuristic setting; and stories in which it is entirely absent. Think of Doctor Who (2005-2017) and 2001: A Space Opera (1968), Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), Dark Star (1974) and The Quiet Earth (1985). The focus of each, however convoluted or murky, is an exploration of the philosophical, ethical and humanist implications that are an integral part of science fiction’s framework. If the presence of the gun makes sense in terms of these explorations, then it is included; the gun is not, however, the ‘driver’ of the story, and nor is it the beginning and end of conflict. A consequence of this is that other avenues must be found to both initiate and resolve conflict, opening up a plethora of alternative character-based actions, choices and decisions.

These alternatives then lead us to that which is at least partly responsible for science fiction’s contemporary reliance on the gun: Drama. After all, if a story’s chief concern is an exploration of science fiction’s philosophical, ethical and humanist implications, more than likely these explorations will be focused through well-rounded, contextually realistic characters, and suddenly we find ourselves with a piece of science fiction that has more in common with a genre that many would consider its antithesis. Drama has always been seen as underpinning good literature, while action has to varying degrees been seen as more heavily influencing those genres that might be considered ‘lightweight’ or ‘disposal.’

Do we see science fiction as more closely related to action than drama because that’s what we’ve come to expect? Is it because it’s easier to sell science fiction that way? Or is it that the squeaky wheel that is the blockbuster garners so much attention, marketed as it is to as wide an audience as possible and thus catering to the lowest common denominator? To adapt the old show-business saying: Action is easy, drama is hard. While such an adaptation may seem facile there is some truth to it, especially in the over-saturated media marketplaces of today. It simply takes most writers longer to craft dramatic sequences that it does to craft those based on action, as dramatic sequences tend to require more attention to detail and a finer touch. In contrast, an action sequence can paper over any flaws in its detail orientation and adherence to logic simply through the ‘wow factor’ of gunfights and gunfire, or explosions and flames, or fist fights and car chases, and so on.

The downside of this is that the good ideas in science fiction oriented around the gun often tend to be overshadowed by this over reliance. When the gun is the focus, what tends to fall by the wayside are deep explorations of the philosophical, ethical and humanist implications brought to life by the science fiction idea at the story’s core, and so the piece of science fiction in question tends to become just another example of gun-based action that fails to realise its potential. And this is a terrible shame, especially when compared to the emotional heights and depth of feeling that tend to infuse those few pieces of contemporary science fiction film and television that eschew a focus on the gun and instead concentrate on the drama.

Take the BBC television series Humans (2015-2016) as an example. To briefly summarise its science fiction idea: in the not-too-distant future, androids have become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, fulfilling myriad functions and occupations once undertaken by people; introduced into this set-up are a small group of androids who have gained consciousness and are to all intents and purposes psychologically and emotionally human.

It’s the kind of idea that has powered untold thousands of stories. What differentiates Humans is the particular direction in which it focuses this idea. There isn’t a violent confrontation between the ‘bad’ sentient androids and the ‘good’ and their human allies, or a war between the two factions, or an enslavement and extermination of the humans by the androids or vice versa, or a police-led assassination of the androids, or any of the hundred other sentient robot clichés that can be found in the annals of science fiction. It should go without saying that these directions are all action-based, in which the set-up is merely a platform for the gun—in directions like these, the gun can easily become the focus of the story rather than merely a part of it. But instead, Humans takes the dramatic approach, giving us lengthy explorations of an incredible array of philosophical, ethical and humanist implications borne of its central idea, all filtered through well-rounded and contextually realistic characters. The fine line between owning a machine and having a slave, thanks to said machine’s near-human appearance; what it is that actually makes us conscious and human, if it can be explained at all; the existence of ‘sex-bots,’ in relation to both humans and the robots themselves; the socioeconomic impact of using androids rather than humans in a wide variety of jobs and occupations; the divide between genuine (human) companionship and artificial (android) companionship; the age-old argument over nature vs. nurture; the temptation offered to unscrupulous individuals inherent in high-tech and interconnected devices present in the vast majority of homes and workplaces—Humans explores all of these conundrums and more, in great and explicit depth.

To offset the heaviness of this drama, Humans’ creators deftly integrate into their explorations and examinations, a strong sense of action and tension. While this is unarguably a narrative necessity, what makes Humans stand out is the fine balance between inquiry and action that its creators achieve, and the role served by the latter. Instead of merely being action for the sake of action, its creators’ integration of these disparate aspects gives a greater impact to the action that does occur, helping to diminish the sense of desensitisation inherent in so much other science fiction. When enough time is given to establish well-rounded characters, who become the lenses through which their creators focus their philosophical, ethical and humanist explorations, actions that directly affect these characters affect us as well. We care about what happens to them, even though we know that it is only a fiction, and thus these actions have consequences. In a nutshell, this is the difference between characters dying and killing. In science fiction focused on the gun, the emphasis is too often on the killing, which is typically gratuitous, meaningless and devoid of consequence. In a show like Humans, however, the emphasis changes to the dying, forcing us to both confront this eternal fact of life and examine any violent actions behind it. This is no more apparent than in the single appearance of a gun in Humans’ second season, whereby a newly-awakened synthetic who has been rescued by a band of sympathisers is shot dead by a tracker. This death has great meaning to both the characters affected and to us, the viewer—it isn’t glossed over or taken in stride, but a tragedy inflicted upon an innocent; while the gun itself isn’t portrayed as something whizz-bang exciting, but rather a deadly tool that can changes lives forever.

While it presumably would have been easy for the writers of Humans to have taken the road of the gun, we should be relieved that they didn’t. Its presence in the series makes narrative sense, but it is far from the ‘driver’ of the story, and nor is it the beginning and end of conflict. Instead, it is just one part of its world and treated with all the seriousness it deserves, and for it to be any other way would have resulted in a very different story. And by successfully integrating dramatic and action-based storytelling styles, Humans is a perfect demonstration of how creators of science fiction film and television can figuratively have their cake and eat it too. Dramatic space, for want of a better world, gives us the time and space to thoroughly invest in, speculate on and mull over the questions a story asks; action-based space moves the story forward and stops it from merely being a polemic; and when balanced delicately this combination can be truly enlightening. In other words, philosophical, ethical and humanist explorations and the gun can simultaneously exist in a story without one overshadowing the other, provided that these two elements relate to each other and inform each other.

(Originally published in Aurealis #101, June 2017)

She Has No Toys

It was just another night here in the camp – fires were burning in rubbish bins, the flames holding back some of the darkness and adding more heat to the already hot air; people sat in the streets and crowded the footpaths, killing time and waiting for the dry day to drain away; the lucky ones who had been allocated actual houses huddled inside behind locked doors. Do-gooders wandered through the throngs, doling out food and water and patronising advice; gangs roved and threatened; guards blackmailed and coerced; gunshots and screams occasionally rang out.

Like I said, it was just another night here in the camp.

Your old man and I were sitting right here where we’re sitting now, at the same wonky table, in the same rickety chairs. You were swaddled despite the heat, wrapped in a torn sheet and lying in a cardboard box. You were bloody quiet, just like you are now. It’s funny how some things don’t change.

We’d been talking shit for a while, something that we did most nights. We talked about life before the camp, about who we’d been and what we’d done. We never talked about your mum, though. She disappeared before I met your old man, and I didn’t want to pry.
After a while, he’d starting talking about you, airing his worries about the life you’d have to live.

I was used to this change of direction; hell, I worried about you as well. As it always did, this worry-talk eventually shifted to his work out in the graveyard, and his hope that someday he’d find enough scrap to get you out of this shithole.

“You sure you don’t want to come along?” your old man asked me at some point, something that he ended up asking every time. “One more trip and, with a bit of luck, I’ll find enough to bribe a guard and get transferred. It’d be an easier job with the two of us, and if it all works out I can tell them that you’re her big brother.”

He gestured at you, a tiny nod of his head. You smiled blankly and gurgled and then let out a little laugh.

“Nah, it’s alright,” I said. “I’ve got better things to…”

A gunshot, somewhere close, drowned me out. Your old man and I flinched, but you didn’t make a sound. Another gunshot rang out, and then another. Your old man and I flinched again; this time, you screwed up your face and started crying. Your old man got to his feet and scooped you up and gave you a cuddle. You eventually calmed down, and so he put you back in your box and tucked you in tight. You reached out, your tiny hands clutching at the air, and he passed you that crude figurine he’d carved from a lump of wood.

I reckon that’s what changed my mind – you deserved a better life than what the camp could offer, but if you couldn’t have that you at least deserved an actual toy.

“Alright, I’m in.”

We sat there for a moment, staring at each other without saying a word.

“Well, I guess we’d better haul arse,” your old man finally said. “It’s a fair way to the depot, and even further to the graveyard.”

“What about her?” I asked, gesturing at you.

You were chewing on the wooden figurine and drooling and cooing contentedly, and I smiled wide.

“She’ll be right – I’ve got an arrangement with the old bird next door, she babysits in

exchange for a bit of salvage.”
“Fair enough.”

***

Your old man kissed you on the forehead and then hollered at the woman next door, and then we took off, winding through the junkyard maze of the camp, through the sprawl of crumbling buildings, patched tents and corrugated-iron shacks. We didn’t stop to talk to anyone. You know what it’s like – you don’t know who’s a banger or a snitch or a crazy, and anyone could be desperate enough to knock you down for the shirt on your back or the shoes on your feet.

We walked for an hour or so, sometimes making small talk and sometimes trudging along in silence. He mostly talked about you, airing more of his worries and then telling me about your latest ‘first’- that day you’d taken your first steps, a clumsy shuffle that he swore was the cutest thing he’d ever seen.

The moon slowly arced through the sky, a great shining sphere more pure than anything here on God’s grey earth.

Eventually, the lights of the depot appeared in the distance.

“Here we go,” your old man said.

We kept on and the lights of the depot steadily grew brighter. Before too long, the washed-out blur of them resolved into a high steel fence and a towering set of gates, beyond which lay a bare expanse of ground that ended at a row of squat brick buildings. A concrete guardhouse sat on the camp side of the gates, and a mob of fellow reffos had already started gathering. As we drew closer, I saw guards patting them down before opening the gates and waving them through.

A few of the reffos were turned away. I had no idea why; I guess the guards just didn’t like the look of them. Most of those denied entry simply started walking back to the camp without complaint, but some put up a fuss.

I saw a guard pistol-whip an old man who refused to step out of line and head back. I saw another guard push and shove a young blackfella, goading him and egging him on until he took a swing and was inevitably beaten down. I saw another guard wrestle a young woman to the ground, and then saw a couple of other guards give her a bit of a kicking before dragging her into the guardhouse.

I tensed up.

“Take it easy,” your old man said, “there’s nothing you can do. If you step in, you’ll just end up like those poor bastards.”

“But…”

“There are no buts. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”

The guards sickened me, but I got over it. Our lives make us hard…

We walked on and joined the queue. Your old man said ‘g’day’ to a couple of the reffos ahead of us; they shook hands and shot the shit a bit and I figured that he must have regularly worked with them.

“This is Billy,” he said to them, waving at me. “We go back a while, he’s a good bloke.”

They introduced themselves, and then it was their turn to be frisked.

“They’re a good bunch,” your old man said. “Follow my lead, and if we get separated follow theirs.”

“No worries.”

The guards waved your old man’s mates through the gates, and then it was our turn to be frisked. I tried to keep my face blank; I didn’t want my anger to shine through, didn’t want to give the guards an excuse to send me back. Your old man, though, he cracked jokes and asked after them and acted as if they were just like the rest of us.

When we were through the gates, he turned to me and smiled.

“You’ve gotta play the game,” he said. “You play it well enough, and maybe they’ll do you some favours. For a price, of course – nothing comes for free nowadays.”

I just nodded, and we joined the other reffos that filled that bare patch of earth inside the gates. Your old man talked to his mates and we snacked on ration bars and filled our water bottles while more reffos shuffled in. Your old man’s mates all asked how you were, and your old man told them about your first steps, smiling wide the whole time.
After a while, our mob become a sizeable crowd. I looked back at the camp and saw that the queue had disappeared. The guards manning the gate swung it shut; at the same time, a different group of guards opened the heavy doors sealing one of the squat brick buildings facing us.

An engine roar echoed around us. The stink of diesel fumes filled the air. An old bus inched out of the building and then sat there idling. A guard hopped out and faced us.

“All aboard.”

***

When we were settled, one of the guards took the wheel and revved the accelerator and then steered us away from the camp. With the windows covered by metal grills, I couldn’t really see which direction we took or where we were headed.

“What’s next?” I asked your old man.

“Well, they’ll give you the spiel,” he said, pointing at a couple of guards watching us with barely-disguised contempt. “And we’ll hit the graveyard a couple of hours after that.”

“What are we supposed to do while we’re waiting?”

He looked at me as if I’d asked how long a piece of string was; he looked at me as if I was as dumb as a box of bricks.

“Sorry,” I said.

“No worries.”

And then he lay his head back and shut his eyes. Within a minute, he was either asleep or doing a pretty good job of looking that way. I smiled to myself, and that’s when one of the guards started giving us the spiel.

“This is for you newbies, so listen up. When we get to the graveyard, you’ll be split into teams and ferried to the hulks, one team to a hulk. Your job is to go from room and room collecting anything useful.”

“Like what?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.

The guard glowered at me.

“For the sake of you newbies, I’m talking about stuff like jewellery, make up, electronic equipment that hasn’t been badly damaged, clothes, blankets, metal knick-knacks that can be melted down and recycled, cash, canned food, drugs and cigarettes and alcohol, medicine and first-aid kits – anything that looks useful or valuable and can be stuffed into a backpack. Everything else can be left for the heavy-duty crews.”

“What’s in it for us?” someone asked.

One of the guards smiled.

“Extra rations. If you’re lucky, you might get shifted out of the hovel you call a home and transferred to a real house. And if you’re real lucky, maybe a couple of days R&R in the city.”

“What if we find toys and trinkets and shit like that?” your old man asked.

I turned to him; he hadn’t opened his eyes and still looked like he was asleep.

“I’ve told you before, mate,” the guard said. “If you find something that isn’t on the list and isn’t made of metal, then you can help yourself.”

Your old man didn’t reply; I guess that he’d asked for my benefit.

“So, any more stupid questions?”

No one spoke.

“Good. Now get some shut-eye, people – it’s gonna be a long day.”

At that, your old man started snoring, the kind of rattling wheeze that couldn’t be faked. I turned away and looked out the window. Everything beyond the metal grill was just a dark blur.

We drove on. Time passed. Your old man occasionally muttered your name, twitching and dreaming. The muffled and monotonous roar of the engine lulled me into a half-sleep.

At some point, I realised that the sun had come up. I straightened in my seat and looked harder. Through the grill, the world was now a streaky smudge that twinkled and blinked.

“Bright lights, big city,” your old man said.

I looked at him. He still hadn’t opened his eyes. I looked back out the window.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“Years of experience. Just out there, folks are going about their business like nothing’s changed.”

“Huh.”

I didn’t know what else to say. Of course some part of me knew that the city existed, that it was full of people doing everyday things. But being locked up in this shithole we call home tends to make all that seem like some kind of dream.

“You ever been…”

“Nope,” he said, cutting me off. “And as far as I know, their talk of R&R is just that: talk. Unless you’ve got some skill they need, you shouldn’t even hope. There isn’t much demand for desperate bastards like us.”

“Fair enough.”

“No, it’s not fair enough. It’s just how it is.”

There was anger in his voice, something that I’d rarely heard. I decided to leave him alone, and leaned across so I could see out the windscreen.

I saw houses, shops, cars, pedestrians, footpaths, streets. I saw lampposts, letterboxes, fire hydrants, bike racks, bus stops, traffic lights. I saw people on their way to work, people out walking their dogs, people jogging and cycling, people leisurely wandering around, people driving children to school, people leaning on picket fences and talking to their neighbours. I saw garbos collecting rubbish, posties delivering mail, tradies bent over their tools, gardeners wielding their shears, couriers dropping off parcels, council workers standing around doing nothing.

I saw order and cleanliness and all the symbols of ordinary life. It was like a snapshot of a bygone time, apart from the roving packs of military troops.

As I watched, one pack of troops confronted someone who promptly turned and ran. I saw the troops shoot him down without a warning, saw them drag his unmoving body to a waiting van, saw them unceremoniously throw him in the back and then drive away.

It sickened me once again, but I got over it as always.

And then, in the sudden empty space where the van had been, I saw my first glimpse of the ocean, and of the towering hulks of half-submerged buildings.

“Welcome to the graveyard,” your old man said.

***

The waterfront was nothing like the picket-fence suburbia we’d just passed through – that beautiful ordinariness had slowly become more derelict as we drew closer to the water, until we were eventually driving through what was effectively a slum. A high steel-mesh fence ran parallel to the shore, hugging its twists and turns; gates were built into the fence at widely-spaced intervals, each one topped with barbed wire; the water beyond the fence shimmered with a dirty-silver slickness; half-submerged office buildings and apartment blocks rose from the depths, crumbling island-shrines to forgotten gods.

I’d never seen the ocean before, and felt a strange excitement – the water seemed to be drowning the whole world, vast and endless and all consuming.

The bus shuddered suddenly as the driver killed the engine. Through the windscreen, I saw that we’d pulled up alongside a guardhouse and stopped before a gate. Military troops were milling around; one of them was talking to the driver through the open door of the bus.

This troop passed a clipboard to the driver. As if this was some predefined signal, one of the guards who had accompanied us from camp stood up and turned to look at us.

“Time to get to work,” he said.

The other reffos started shuffling around and I awkwardly half-stood to shoulder my way into the queue that was already jamming the narrow aisle.

“There’s no rush,” your old man said, “the graveyard isn’t going anywhere.”

I thought about it, realised that he was right, and sat back down. A few other people were still sitting as well; most of them were your old man’s mates, a couple of them weren’t. They all looked lean and hard…

In fact, they pretty-much looked just like your old man.

“These guys aren’t friends of yours?” I asked, nodding at the reffos I hadn’t met.

“Loners and freaks, there are always some. And who can blame them? I mean, we’ve all seen some shit, but some of us have seen some real shit.”

“Fair enough.”

“No, it’s not fair enough,” your old man said once again, and I realised that maybe this little mantra was his way of coping. “It’s just how it…”

“You lot, it’s your turn,” a troop yelled at us, cutting off your old man

“Right, right,” someone said.

“We’re coming.”

“Okay.”

“Ugh, really?”

“Just stick with me.”

That last was from your old man, and he and I joined the end of the queue, walked down the aisle, and started clambering down the steps. The driver ticked us off, signing whatever bureaucratic bullshit was attached to the clipboard the troop had passed him. I looked at the guards, who I guess were headed back to camp. They scowled at me for wasting their time. I smiled back, as polite as can be, playing the game.

Your old man and I stepped outside.

“Jesus, what’s that stink?”

“You’ll get used to it,” your old man said. “In fact, I don’t even notice it anymore.”

He smiled at me, and I believed him. No one could smile that wide in the face of that rotting-fish-mouldering-linen-raw-sewerage-decaying-vegetable stench.

I gagged, and it took a bit of effort to get myself under control. Your old man laughed; there was a bit of cruelty in it. But then, I guess I was carrying on a bit.

“Yeah, thanks mate,” I said.

“No worries.”

I looked at the water. I looked at it properly, now that I could see it as a whole rather than just as a tiny part framed by a windscreen.

“Fuck me.”

I drew the phrase out, filling it with incredulity.

“Fitter words have never been spoken…” Your old man doffed an imaginary cap and saluted the graveyard. “Isn’t she a beauty?”

It was awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, and not just because that was the first time I’d seen it. The water was flat and still, more like a lake than an ocean; it stretched to the horizon in every direction but landward, so sprawling as to be almost unbelievable. It was mottled and streaked like a clumsy-fisted oil painting, sometimes blue-grey and sometimes dark-red and sometimes lime-green. Slowly drowning office buildings and apartment blocks towered above the overwhelming stillness of it; every single one of them looked out at the water with smashed-window eyes, with collapsed-balcony eyes, with holed-wall eyes.

I heard a faint splash, what I guess was the exact moment a piece of ruin finally rotted through and fell away. A buzzing-drone followed the splash, and slowly grew louder.

I felt tiny.

***

The buzzing-drone soon became identifiable: four speedboats were coming towards us, lightweight things that easily coped with the debris-strewn waters of the graveyard and effortlessly weaved between the half-submerged buildings.

Without even addressing us newbies, one of the troops flung the gate open and started waving us through.

“Move it or lose it,” your old man said.

At that, he strode ahead. It took me a moment to realise that his demeanour had suddenly changed – he didn’t look back to see if I was keeping pace, but instead walked with the troop leading us.

I sped up.

“What’s the rush?”

“First team at the dock gets the closest building. You get the closest building, you get more time to search. You get more time to search, maybe you find more stuff.”

“But…”

“No more stupid questions.”

I expected him to smile or wink and undercut his seriousness, but he didn’t. And so I just shut my mouth.

Soon, we found ourselves at the dock, which was actually just a flimsy wooden pier that had obviously been hastily erected. The water gently lapped only a foot or so beneath it. At the far end, a speedboat had tied-off and a troop and a captain were waiting. Your old man and the troop leading us on walked faster. I did my best to keep up. Before I really knew it, we’d stopped at the far end of the pier and the troop leading us was waving us on.

That’s when I realised that I couldn’t move.

I know it sounds stupid, but I literally couldn’t take another step. If you ever see it, I reckon you’ll feel the same. It was all that water, you see – I felt like it was waiting for me, and that if I tripped or slipped and fell in, I might simply disappear.

Your old man put his hand on my shoulder.

“You alright?”

I didn’t move.

“It’s just one step.”

I didn’t move.

“For fuck’s sake…”

He didn’t give me time to respond, he just shoved me.

I flopped and tottered and almost ended up in the dirty drink, but at the last moment your old man grabbed my shoulder. I took a stumbling step, abruptly squatted-fell-crouched, and ended up on my arse at the back of the speedboat.

“Finally…”

Your old man rolled his eyes. He took an easy step off the pier and gracefully sat down next to me. I smiled stupidly, embarrassed, ever-so-slightly ashamed of myself. He caught my eye, and then chided himself for his impatience.

“You’ll get your legs,” he said.

And then we were off in a drenching spray, the speedboat fishtailing madly one minute and then spinning in circles the next.

I saw your old man catch the captain’s eye and wink, and I knew the display was for my benefit.

That was the last thing I saw for a while – I closed my eyes as the speedboat began rocking that little bit harder. Over the din of the engine, I heard your old man talking to the troop. I didn’t catch much of what they said, just odd words and broken-phrases that occasionally drifted by:

“G’day, how’s it…”

“…usual…”

“…what it is.”

“…mate of mine…”

“…right to show your mate?”

“Yep. You just…”

“…yeah, I know that…”

The engine died abruptly; the silence seemed to actually hum. I opened my eyes.

“Bullshit.”

“I’ll say it again – fitter words have never been spoken.”

***

 

We had stopped at one of the half-submerged buildings, at a gaping hole that must have once been a balcony. In the sudden quiet, the building groaned as if protesting the water incessantly lapping against it, water that it knew would eventually consume it.

The building soared into the sky; I couldn’t see the top floor no matter how hard I craned my neck.

It was cold in its shadow.

Up close, I saw that it was pockmarked with holes; holes the size of windows and doors, the size of rockets and mortars, the size of bullets. It was slowly rotting, a film of green sludge-slime climbing its face. Splintered wood and twisted steel erupted from it like so many engineered pimples and warts. It stank, but your old man was right – it was more bearable than the waterfront.

Beyond the holes there was only gloom.

“We’ll catch you later,” the speedboat captain said to your old man.

“No worries.”

Your old man turned and looked at me.

“After you,” he said. “And don’t worry, it’s as easy as falling off a bike.”

“Great, thanks, you’re such a help.”

He laughed off my sarcasm, and so I got my head together and managed to step off the speedboat without embarrassing myself too much. It wasn’t that I wanted to impress your old man; I just wanted him to lose his smirk.

I stood on something that squished, something hidden by knee-deep dirty water.

“Gross…”

“Suck it up,” your old man said, “we’re wasting daylight.”

“Right-oh, right-oh.”

He didn’t reply; looking back, I saw that he was talking to the captain and the troop. They passed him two backpacks, and he reached into his pocket and slipped something into the captain’s palm.

I left them to their game, and walked on into what must have once been a lounge-room.
The bulky shapes of rotting furniture rose from the dreck-water like manmade rocks. Everything was covered in fuzz and slime; mould crawled over the walls like hieroglyphs describing some unknowable alien place; tiny buzzing-clicking-shrieking-chittering insects clustered in swarms no more substantial than smoke; the air was damp and dripping.

“Right, best get to it,” your old man said, catching up to me.

I cracked it, and looked at him for a moment without speaking.

“You okay?” I finally asked.

Coward that I am, I couldn’t bring myself to confront him.

“You’ve been a weird since we hit the waterfront, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry, just playing the game,” your old man said. “I’ll explain later, when it’s smoko time.”

Without even really thinking about it, I decided not to push him any further. It wasn’t a big thing, after all, and we did have the building to deal with.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No worries.”

And then he was all business again.

“So, here’s the plan – we start at the top-floor and work our way down, the best stuff’s always found where the rich people used to live. As well, if any pirates or looters have been by, they probably only made it up the first few floors before chucking it in.”

“Gotcha.”

He pointed at the door leading into the guts of the building.

“Once we’re inside, we keep our mouths shut until we’re nearer the top – we don’t want to attract any attention. It’ll be a long climb, eighteen floors they said. So pace yourself.”

“Okay.”

“Any questions?”

I shook my head. He was the one who’d been out to the graveyard before; he knew what he was doing, and knew how to do it safely. He passed me one of the backpacks he was carrying. He pulled out his water bottle and took a long drink. He pulled a torch from a pocket of his backpack, and then flung the pack over his shoulder.

“Let’s go.”

***

It was hard work climbing all those stairs, but somehow we managed. It took a couple of hours or so; in that gloomy stairwell there was no way of telling the time by tracking the sun. We walked in silence, the straining of our breath joining the building’s baritone moan. We rested occasionally and had a drink and something to eat and then kept on. My legs began to ache. At every single floor, your old man stopped at a silver alcove built into the wall beside the entry door, which must have once been the elevator. He would knock on both the elevator and the door, wait for a moment, and then swing the entry door open carefully and shine his torch around quickly.

The corridors of the first few floors were stripped completely, the work of looters or pirates. After that, we saw more and more abandoned stuff – bits of this and that from ordinary lives that had been left behind in the rush to evacuate. Your old man dismissed most of it with a cursory and practised glance, but every now and then we had a quick rummage.

The higher we climbed, the less rotten and mouldering this stuff became.

“A-ha,” your old man said as he swung open the door to a floor that I hoped was near the top.

To me, this particular batch of stuff looked just like any other: papers and documents, pieces of clothing, blankets, photos, mementoes and trinkets that were odd and absurd now that there were devoid of context.

But your old man’s eyes were sharper than mine.

“It’s about bloody time,” he said.

He walked into the corridor and thrust his hand into one of the piles of stuff. I had no idea what he’d seen, but it was obviously something important, something precious, maybe even priceless.

He pulled out a teddy bear.

“She’ll love this,” he said with a big goofy smile.

And that’s when I remembered why we were out there. That’s when I remembered you. I suddenly felt a bit ashamed of myself for getting caught up in the excitement, but your old man’s smile soon drove that away.

“Nice one,” I said.

I felt truly happy for you both.

“Thanks. It’s perfect, it’s just what I’ve been looking for.”

He suddenly shook his head as if he was clearing it. Keeping a firm grip on the teddy, he quickly dismissed the rest of the stuff and led us back to the stairwell. He looked at the stairs leading up to the next floor, and then he did something weird – he leaned against the stairwell wall, against the elevator door built into it, and started spinning the teddy in his hands.

His head dropped.

“You okay?”

He didn’t answer. I waited. He started crying, almost silently. I couldn’t help shining the torch at him. Somehow, he was crying and smiling at the same time.

“It’s just…” His crying became audible and he couldn’t go on. “Sorry,” he said after he’d gotten himself under control. “Sorry that you had to see that. It’s just been such a long time, and she’s had to make do for so long…”

“It’s alright, I get it. Hell, I’m happy for you, mate – I think it’s great.”

“Cheers.”

“No worries.”

The brief silence that fell was almost beautiful. And then it was broken by a sharp, electronic ‘ding.’ Without warning, the elevator door behind your old man split apart vertically. It happened fast, with a shudder and a jolt, as if some last surge of power had finally been set free. Your old man’s eyes widened.

“Shit,” he said, and then fell backward into the sudden gap.

I froze for just a second, shocked still. Somehow I knew that I’d missed the moment, but I reached forward anyway. Instead of what I’d hoped to feel – skin or hair or the rough material of your old man’s jacket – all I felt was the plush softness of the teddy, the plush softness of that teddy right there.

I’m sorry…

(Originally published in The Fifth Di… March 2018)

Xylouris White: Mother

With Mother, Xylouris White have created what might best be described as a musical representation of Greece as it exists in our collective cultural imagination. It isn’t the sound of a modern land filled with megacities, crowded beaches and tourist-filled nightclubs, but of an ancient land built on myth and legend, and filled with truths so profound and universal that they could only be delivered in fable and parable. It is the sound of a world where the line between man, god and beast becomes blurred; a world where the dawn of civilisation existed alongside Dionysian bacchanalia; a world of sand and rock, sea and mountain, wind and fire.

A collaboration between New York-based Australian drummer Jim White of Dirty Three fame, and revered Greek singer and laouto (Cretan lute) player George Xylouris, Xylouris White blow apart our expectations of the power a simple duo can muster, and of what world music can be. In fact, since the release of their debut album Goats in 2014, Xylouris White have been pushing the boundaries of their musical relationship and free-wheeling approach, sometimes reaching into the realms of free jazz, ambient and experimental while still retaining their earthy and undeniably Greek core. Xylouris’ laouto roars like thunder or caresses like rain, sometimes falling away into a mere ghost-like presence and sometimes charging over the top of everything else, driving their sound forward. His voice is sometimes a whisper, sometimes a rumble, sometimes a wail, sometimes a howl. White does what he does best: he walks a line with his drumming and percussion, achieving a perfect balance between melody and rhythm, between accompanist and leader, between control and freedom. In Xylouris, he seems to have found the perfect collaborator, the border between his drums and Xylouris’ laouto often becoming indistinct.

Opening track ‘Achilles’ Heel’ is a brooding affair, Xylouris’ low moan evoking a cold wind on a lonely mountain top, his gently plucked laouto and White’s rickety percussion summoning a sound more akin to that of rain and skittering stones. ‘Motorcycle Kondilies’ moves with a purpose, White’s tick-tock drumbeat combining with Xylouris’ cyclic laouto riff to create the sort of song that might be played at a gathering in a lonely forest or on an empty beach. ‘Lullaby’ might have been beamed to us from the distant past, such is the rawness of its sound and the almost-improvised approach of Xylouris and White. ‘Daphne’ is as eerie as anything I’ve ever heard, a spidery laouto riff and stop-start percussion slowly evolving into something frenetic and overwhelming, the end result being the stuff of nightmares. And these barely scratch the surface…If you’ve got even the slightest affection for world music, you need to rush out right now and get yourself a copy of Mother.XY-Mother-1500jpeg-702x336