First World Problems

It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster week for me. Last weekend I was at the Fantasy Convention, an annual get-together for fantasy and horror writers, editors, and fans, held this year in Scarborough. It was great. Writing is a lonely profession and the chance to go from writing blog posts about Mike Carey to actually meeting him doesn’t come round that often. I met up with old friends and made some new ones. I saw some fascinating panels on topics like magic in fiction and the apocalypse (time until first mention of Donald Trump: less than five minutes). I went to some great sessions with publishers, and I got to meet some of my favourite authors including Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear. I also sat near Zen Cho at the banquet and cheered loudly when her excellent book Sorcerer to the Crown won the Best Newcomer prize at the British Fantasy Awards ceremony. Two other prizes were won at my table and I basked in reflected glory for a brief time. The weather was glorious and Scarborough was beautiful.

Then on Monday I drove back to Derby in the rain, and on Tuesday I was washing dishes in a cafe to try and help make ends meet. Talk about returning to normality with a bump.

On top of this, I’ve had the everyday stresses of our kitchen refit, familiar to anyone who’s ever had work done on the house: the noise and disruption, the schedule over-runs and extra costs, the annoyances when something goes wrong, having to live off microwave ready-meals for weeks on end. By yesterday morning, I was feeling pretty frazzled.

It is, of course, all very First World Problems. We’ll shortly have an awesome new kitchen complete with a Rangemaster cooker and one of those American-style giganto-fridges, so whingeing about how long it’s taken us to get there is – at best – a pointless self-indulgence. Which is partly why I enjoy doing voluntary work – helping out with some decidedly more third-world problems at the refugee centre really puts my own issues in perspective.

And the great thing about being a writer is that any unpleasant experiences can go straight into the story-pot. Which I’ll then stir up and transform into a tasty stew with the help of my new cooker.

The Girl with Some of the Gifts

I’ve just finished reading The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey and I can 100% recommend it if chilling-yet-also-strangely-heartwarming post-apocalyptic horror sounds like your bag. It’s an interesting take on the zombocalypse concept, in which the zombifying plague is caused by a fungus instead of the usual virus. The story follows an, um, special little girl called Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau, a crazy scientist, and a couple of soldiers, all on the run together in a zombie-overrun Britain.

There’s a movie adaptation coming out this week, which has had good reviews, but I’m so disappointed in the casting that I’m planning to avoid it. Why?

In the book, the character Miss Justineau is both brainy and beautiful – Melanie has a massive schoolgirl crush on her, and both the soldiers find her attractive too. She’s brave and resourceful too, but saved from Mary Sue-dom by her occasionally reckless behaviour and blind spot towards Melanie. She’s also a 40+ dark-skinned black woman. Now, awesome-but-fully-rounded female characters are sadly rare in films (and not frequent enough in books either for my liking). Awesome-but-fully-rounded older female characters are even rarer, and as for awesome-but-fully-rounded older black female characters… Name one. Go on. Who isn’t Annalise Keating.

This could have been an amazing part for someone. Maybe Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Or Viola Davis, if you don’t mind an American playing a British role.


But who did they cast as Miss Justineau for the film? Not either of those ladies. Not even Gina Torres or Sophie Okonedo or Zoe Saldana or Naomie Harris. Nope, they cast Gemma Arterton.

Huh? Yeah, that’s right, Gemma Arterton. Who is a) only 30 years old; b) white. The character has been totally white-washed, and de-aged to boot, to fit a Hollywood idea of what a leading lady should look like. Not cool, film-makers, not cool.

But, some people are saying, it’s all right, it’s not whitewashing, they’ve just race-swapped the cast! Melanie, who was white in the book, is now black! And so is one of the soldiers, Pte Gallagher, who was also originally white! So that’s two for the price of one! Why are you complaining? Mike Carey himself has said that he was happy with ‘colour-blind’ casting, so long as the overall diversity of the characters was preserved.

[spoilers in this paragraph] The thing is, I don’t think diversity is just a numbers game. It’s also about the kind of characters you have, their role in the story, and how those things interact with pre-existing ideas and media portrayals. No story exists in a vacuum. Melanie being made black instead of Miss Justineau makes me uncomfortable because Melanie is a zombie (or ‘hungry’ in the book’s nomenclature). Sure, she’s a higher functioning zombie, but she does kick into animalistic flesh-eating mode a few times, usually to protect Miss Justineau. And a monster black girl going feral and ripping people’s throats out to protect her pretty white teacher has some unfortunate implications, which the book’s version doesn’t. Oh, and did I mention Melanie spends a lot of the story tied up and muzzled like an animal? Like it or not, a white woman keeping a black girl on a leash has different – and deeply icky – cultural resonances from a black woman keeping a white girl on a leash. And as for Pte Gallagher – he’s the first of the group to be eaten by zombies, so by making him black all you’ve done is given TV Tropes another example for the ‘Black Dude Dies First’ page. So while ‘colour-blind’ casting might be the ideal, I can’t see it really working here.

[no more spoilers] Now I’m just a sheltered white girl who can bleat about racism online but doesn’t have to live it every day, and whether or not I go to see this film isn’t going to make much difference to their box office numbers. At least I can use the questions it raises to inform my own writing, and try and make sure I’m helping, not hindering. And hope that, if one of my books ever gets adapted for the screen, the casting is more sensitive.

Edit 14th Oct: I have now seen the film version of The Girl with All the Gifts and I actually enjoyed it very much – it’s an excellent zombie thriller/post-apocalyptic drama. The cast all acted very well, and it was good to see a woman kicking ass while wearing baggy clothes. The cultural resonances of the race-bent casting weren’t as bad as I feared, but they were still present, so while I would recommend the film, I still stand by my comments above.


Internet Problems

It probably won’t come as a surprise to any of you that I spend an awful lot of time on the Internet. In fact, in many ways I’m never really ‘offline’, with so many apps all set to alert me whenever the slightest thing happens. Life on the Internet isn’t so much awesome, as life without the Internet has become unthinkable. For instance, how did I ever cope before having a smartphone in my pocket which allows me to prove other people wrong on the spot?
But there are downsides too, some problems unique to life online. Here’s brief glossary of some of my favourites:

‘Adgorithmfail’ : when the article you’re looking at contains keywords which trigger ads for related products and services to appear, even though the article is actually talking about how terrible these things are.

‘Cherrypop-oogling’ : when you google something seemingly innocent, and then – usually straight after hitting the ‘images’ tab – abruptly realise that the term also has much less innocent meaning as wildly nsfw posts fill your screen. You can slam your laptop shut, you can even delete your browser history, but you can never unsee what has already been seen. The opposite would be ‘Cherrypie-oogling’: when you google something expecting nsfw stuff, and get innocent stuff instead – although this is clearly hypothetical as I never actively look for nsfw content.

‘Gabiggening’ : when you order something online and then when it turns up it’s waaaay bigger than you expected because either you didn’t read the description properly or hey it’s hard to visualise what a 5-litre container might look like when they don’t put anything in the picture to scale it all right? The opposite is ‘Galittling’ when the item turns out to be much smaller.

‘Meatspace shock’ tfw you have to interact with people irl and suddenly you can’t converse entirely in reaction gifs, l33t, and pictures of Kermit the Frog sipping tea, and are instead forced to fall back on forming words with your mouth like some kind of medieval peasant.

‘Stormbacking’ : when you follow what seems like a legit link – usually buried deep in a comment thread – and end up on Stormfront (’White Pride World Wide’) or something equally unsavoury, and have to hit the back button hard and hope you don’t get followed by racist cookies.

‘Thatxkcdcartooning’ : when you can’t go to bed because SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET.

‘Tubemetic’ The feeling of physical sickness caused by reading the cesspit of hatred, ignorance, and poor spelling that is the comments section on any given YouTube video. The only coping mechanism I’ve found is to regard them as a kind of mass-participation Dadaist artwork meditating on the hopelessness of the human condition.

‘Twemenews’ when you find out about news stories indirectly through seeing the piss-taking tweets and memes, and have to try to reconstruct what’s actually happened.