Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I hope everyone wants a piece of this action

Okay, today we’re talking action thrillers: cynical, hardboiled characters embroiled in kill-or-be-killed adventures, often in hellish urban settings, and pitted against foes who are the essence of evil.

Firstly, this is because ASHES TO ASHES, the next Heck novel, will hit the shelves in precisely 45 days’ time, but also because, as I’m increasingly hearing about the sequel (due later this year) to the 1983 movie blockbuster, Blade Runner, I thought I’d go back to its original source, Philip K. Dick’s masterly sci-fi/cop thriller, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, and offer a detailed review and discussion of it.

This will also, I guess, be a timely occasion for me to reprint a blog I wrote for OFF-THE-SHELF BOOKS back in October last year, when I was asked the question ‘what are your top tips for writing action sequences?’

But before we get to any of that – the Philip K. Dick article and review can be found, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post – I’m going to talk a little bit more about Heck.

ASHES TO ASHES will be published on April 6, and the reviews are starting to come in courtesy of the NetGalley folks. Thankfully, the two I’ve seen so far are both five stars.

NIGELADAMSBOOKWORM talks about the book’s readability, with the following quote:

“It’s one of those books where you keep looking for a point where you can put it down and get on with what you should be doing. In the end, I gave up and just read it straight through.”

Well, that’s certainly fine by me. When you write what you consider to be a high-energy thriller, the last thing you want is a mid-book sag, which sees readers happy to take long breaks between chapters.

The second five-star review has appeared on Goodreads courtesy of Elaine Tomasso, and okay, I’m hoping there’ll be lots of reviews on Goodreads at some point, so I post this one at the risk of seeming a little bit over-excitable. But this one is particularly interesting because it picks out a very different aspect of ASHES TO ASHES:

“Ashes to Ashes is a compulsive read with a bit of everything thrown in – action, violence, cop humour, some of Heck’s backstory and sadness as well.” 

This latter reference to a melancholy backstory was music to my ears because, throughout the Heck novels thus far, we’ve seen that our hero has family issues, and though we’ve explored them superficially, we haven’t yet drilled down into the nitty-gritty.

Well … in this sixth installment, we do.

Heck, you may recall – Detective Sergeant Mark Heckenburg – originally joined the Greater Manchester Police so that he’d only have to travel 15 or so miles to work, his home being in Bradburn, a run-down coal-mining town on the border between Manchester and Lancashire. But in due course he was driven south to the Metropolitan Police in London because his family ostracised him.

At the risk of giving away a slight SPOILER for those who haven’t read any of the Heck books so far, while Heck was still at school, his older brother, Tom, a college drop-out with drugs problems, was framed by a lazy CID unit for a series of violent burglaries and received a life sentence. A month into it, after much abuse in prison, he committed suicide. Perhaps inevitably, the real culprit was apprehended only a couple of weeks later.

It was therefore to the horror of his family, that Heck himself joined the police as soon as he was old enough. Understandably, neither they nor various family friends would speak to him afterwards, eventually causing him to abandon his hometown and seek reassignment at the other end of the country.

All of this became canon in the first Heck novel, STALKERS, but what has never really been revealed, despite the efforts to find out by numerous characters in the follow-up novels, is why Heck would seemingly betray his family in this most crass and inexplicable fashion.

Until now.

Heck is stripped to the bare bones in ASHES TO ASHES – yep, the much-publicised fire in this novel doesn’t just burn the victims of the maniac he pursues! – as everything we need to know about his early home-life is finally laid bare. But unfortunately, because I’m not going to give away SPOILERS for free all day, you’ll need to read the book to find out more.

Elaine also hits the spot with the following quote:

“The big message in the novel is the devastation caused by drugs, not just to the user but their families and to society in general … It makes for difficult reading in parts.”

That comment made me glad too. Quite often in these novels, Heck has hunted serial killers, sexual deviants, torture freaks and other homicidal madmen. But there are all kinds of evil in our modern world, some of them infinitely more subtle than these, and the scourge of drug-addiction is one with which we’re all very familiar – and so ASHES TO ASHES will hopefully strike a chord on that front too.

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And now, on an only slightly different note, here is the article I penned for OFF-THE-SHELF BOOKS last autumn ...

What are your top tips for when it comes to writing action?

I’m honoured that my crime novels have won praise from reviewers for their action sequences. Flattering terms like ‘vivid’, ‘gut-thumping’ and ‘bone-crunching’ have all been used in recent times, so I can only assume that I’m doing something reasonably right.

It may surprise people to hear this, but one of the tricks to writing good action is to be subtle.

For real?, I hear you ask. ‘Gut-thumping’? ‘Bone-crunching’? What’s subtle about that?

What I mean is that action is most effective when used sparingly. Otherwise you risk your novel turning into a cartoon. Now, that may be what some authors are looking to achieve. But personally, I like to keep things just this side of believable. So I don’t include a fist fight or a car chase on every other page. Likewise, I try to do those other things that are important in novel-writing: evoke some mood, some atmosphere, develop plot and character, examine relationships, etc. And that’s not some attempt to be literary, it’s an attempt to create a more rounded and satisfying experience for the readers, and to prevent them becoming bored, because you can just as easily get bored with too much action as you can with too much kissing, too much chatter, etc.

Another problem with overusing action is that you consistently must raise the stakes, always needing to produce a bigger, louder sequence than the one before. You won’t need me to tell you that it isn’t long before this gets preposterous. You could finish up with the situation you had in the Bond movie, Die Another Day, which included an invisible car, a giant beam of concentrated solar energy fired from a satellite and destroying Earth’s armies, and Bond wind-surfing a tidal wave.

Even trying to keep things grounded sometimes isn’t enough. You only need to look back at some of the 1980s action extravaganzas, the Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies, which were basic cop movies in concept, but often morphed into blizzards of gunfire from beginning to end, with soaring body-counts and heroes who were completely invincible.

And that’s another thing.

Unless you’re setting out to write about superheroes, remember that the more vulnerable your lead character is going to be, the more effective he/she is. To have weaknesses is human – it’s a recognisable and even likeable trait in fiction. So if you portray them walking through storms of bullets without getting hurt, or dispatching every opponent with ridiculous ease … why would anything else your reader sees them encounter be deemed a threat?

How will he/she empathise with them? All tension and suspense is lost.

These are the most important tips I can offer with regard to action sequences. Don’t overuse them and don’t overcook them. Less is always more, and remember that in the real world violence has consequences. Even if your heroes emerge from the battle unscathed, they are not going to be unshaken.

There may also be legal ramifications, especially if your hero is a cop. Okay, it’s a built-in given with police thriller fiction that the central character tends to be on the side of right and therefore, almost whatever he/she does will end up being approved. But I once read a very interesting quote from a senior San Francisco police officer, who, after it was drawn to his attention that in the five Dirty Harry movies, Callahan’s kill-count was somewhere in the 40s or 50s, commented that no serving officer with such a record could expect to keep his job or even his liberty.

Obviously, we’re often dealing with life and death situations in our novels, but the legal structure of the free world is important, so we at least have to pay a degree of lip-service towards that.

All that said, if you use them judiciously, your action sequences can still be among the highlights of your book. For this reason, I myself find them the most demanding scenes to write, because they need to be bang-on.

One case in point was a car chase across South London in my fifth Heckenburg novel, HUNTED. It was described by one reviewer as ‘the mother of all car-chases’, which made me happy, because though it only occupied two pages of the novel, it had taken me two whole weeks to construct it. First of all, I’d wanted to get it correct geographically. This involved plotting it on a map and taking advice from London traffic officers. I also drove the route to see if such a chase was technically possible. And while the actual writing might have been done in a day, it then needed to be very tightly edited. It isn’t a rule of law, but I always find it gives you a quicker read if you use shorter, punchier sentences. So whatever you do, don’t meander – get to the point of each sentence immediately. This will energise the entire passage.

Also, remember that the quality of an action sequence is not just a piece of narrative: ‘he said, she said, this is what happened next …’ It works much better when it’s a genuine assault on the senses. Any kind of pursuit or combat situation can be overwhelming for those involved. You’ve got to think how it looks to be in the midst of this terrible danger, how it sounds, how it smells: a chaos of flickering ‘jumping jack’ images, the mingled stenches of sweat, blood, oil, the crump of splintering metal, the explosion of shattering glass, the deafening bangs as speeding cars rebound from one another, etc.

All of this can make it a vivid experience for your audience, who I try to involve as much as I possibly can. If you can make your reader feel that he/she is the one being put through the mangle, not your hero, then that is one sure way to make them flip through those pages in a blur of speed.

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THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing. 


DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? 
by Philip K. Dick (1968)

The world of 1992 (or 2021 in later reprints) is a nightmare of ruined cities and desolate wildernesses. In the wake of World War Terminus, Earth has largely been depopulated. Those who weren’t killed in the conflict have either abandoned their homes for colonies off-world or are now slowly dying from the toxic dust that permeates the atmosphere. A parody of the human consumer lifestyle continues, those remaining working normal jobs (though very few of these are high-powered), living in apartment buildings (which otherwise are largely empty) and watching television (even though there is only one channel, run by the megalomaniac oddball, Buster Friendly). Everyone is so depressed that they need their ‘Penfield mood organs’ to try and uplift their spirits.

It is a blighted, despair-laden scene, in which the only light is ‘Mercerism’, the worship of Wilbur Mercer, a semi-mythical Christ-like figure, who when humans commune telepathically by means of their ‘empathy boxes’, they envision ascending a steep, rugged slope, at the top of which he is martyred by being stoned to death, leading all those tuned-in to reach a transcendental state.

Even the ‘specials’ and the ‘chickenheads’ find hope in Mercerism, the former because, having been sterilised by the radioactive fall-out, they are considered useless to the human race and thus are prohibited from emigrating off-world, and the latter because, having suffered brain damage, they can perform only the most menial tasks and are subsequently treated with contempt.

Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter employed by the San Francisco police, often wonders why he hasn’t left Earth by now. His wife, Iran, is more depressed than most – so much so that she can barely even rise in the morning, while Deckard himself struggles with his conscience. The police mainly use him to ‘retire andys’, which in a nutshell means hunt down and, by use of a controversial empathy test, the Voigt-Kampff, identify rogue members of the android slave race developed to aid human expansion into the off-world colonies, and then kill them.

Deckard’s problem is that the androids are in many ways like humans; they were biologically-grown rather than constructed, and though they are short-lived (designed to cease functioning after four years), they are excellent physical specimens, particularly the new, improved model, the Nexus-6. When androids go ‘rogue’ it basically means they have come to Earth, which is strictly forbidden; they don’t necessarily need to have committed a crime. Increasingly Deckard finds it difficult to retire these thinking, reasoning beings, though he does agree that they lack the all-important empathy, which means they have no concept of human kindness, even if they are increasingly adept at concealing this. 

Despite his doubts, Deckard is good at his job and earns decent money. One day he hopes to be able to dispense with his pet electric sheep, and buy a real animal. Because one other aspect of the tragicomic existence mankind has descended into is that, with animals so rare, their ownership has now become a status symbol. Anyone who is anyone owns an animal of some sort, and zealously shows it off, though only at immense cost. In this regard, Deckard’s lucky day finally seems to arrive when he is summoned to police HQ and advised that a senior bounty hunter has been badly injured by a particularly dangerous group of Nexus-6 androids, who are newly arrived on Earth. Their leader is the ruthlessly intelligent Roy Baty, who, unable to stand his servile status any longer, has led a miniature rebellion on Mars, which has cost several human lives. If Deckard can retire all six, it will earn him a fortune. But it soon becomes apparent that this won’t be easy.

To start with, enquiries at the central offices of the Rosen Association in Seattle, the corporation responsible for manufacture of the androids, brings him into contact with the alluring Rachael Rosen, whom he finds incredibly attractive – only for him to apply the empathy test to her, and discover that she too is an andy, which confuses him even more with his chosen role.

Meanwhile, the fugitive Nexus-6 have been blending in on Earth. Some successfully impersonate humans, even Deckard’s fellow cops, while another becomes a beautiful opera singer and gains immediate respectability. At the same time, several of those Deckard has targeted, Roy Baty included, are given refuge by the deluded chickenhead, John Isidore, who is both in awe of their perfection and terrified of their heartlessness.
               
If this doesn’t make it difficult enough for Deckard, he is further hampered by Rachael, who, in a mysterious gesture (though she seems to be genuinely attracted to the lonely, world-weary bounty hunter), offers to help him catch the renegade band. Despite being one herself, Rachael expresses a conviction that there is no place for the Nexus-6 on Earth. But Deckard has been an investigator for a long time, and even though he eventually falls into bed with her – because she is the ultimate femme fatale! – he is never sure that he can trust her …

Almost everyone thinks they know the story of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because they have seen the epic movie version, Blade Runner, made by Ridley Scott in 1983. In truth, there are significant differences between the two narratives, though overall, the subtexts themselves are not hugely dissimilar.

But first things first; the book.

The late Philip K. Dick, while never a great literary stylist, was regarded throughout his life as one of sci-fi’s great visionaries. Famous for his obsessions with decaying worlds at the mercy of dictatorships and corporations, for the human metaphysical experience, for altered states, theology, drug abuse and insanity, the post-apocalyptic hell-scape he creates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is really one of the most vivid and terrifying ever envisaged simply because it is literally a land without hope. Everything alive is slowly dying; everything that isn’t alive is turning to ‘kipple’ (rubbish). Even off-world in the colonies, we are told that things are only marginally better.

For all these reasons, this book is a hard read. There are moments of wild comedy, for instance Deckard’s burning aspiration to ascend to a level in society wherein he can actually be the proud owner of a goat. But the tone is always bitter-sweet, and ultimately that’s the atmosphere all the way through. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a tale of loss rather than a cop-thriller. Fans of the movie who have never read the book may be expecting a neo-noir, with the weary, overcoated Deckard working his way along the seamy streets like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, and indulging in regular, furious gun-battles with his near-invincible foes. There is a touch of that, particularly towards the end of the novel, but it isn’t a keystone of the story; for example, at no stage in the book do we encounter the term ‘Blade Runner police’.

Even the androids, who are never referred to as ‘replicants’ or ‘skinjobs’ are nowhere near as deadly as they were in the film. They are not a military caste. Roy Baty, the most dangerous of them, trained as a chemist while on Mars. Though this isn’t to say the menace isn’t present. It very much is, particularly as we approach the climax of the novel – especially when the seductive and intriguing Rachael Rosen injects herself more fully into the story – but again, it was never Dick’s overarching purpose to create an actioner.

Throughout the book, he is more interested in examining issues of individuality, self-perception and what it actually means to be empathetic. For example, the remnants of humanity we encounter all value their individuality, but though it eases their misery, the more they commune with Wilbur Mercer (and each other of course), the less individual they become; they even use technology to impose fake emotions on themselves. At the same time, it doesn’t escape Deckard’s notice that, by the end of the novel, the supposedly soulless androids are empathising with each other, and that he himself has begun to empathise with one of them.

Other issues, which back in 1968 were certainly relevant but must also have seemed like pure science-fiction, are now glaringly current in the 21st century: two examples being Man’s irrational stewardship of the Earth – it’s a deep irony that the bounty hunters are hired to kill relentlessly in a time and place when the real problem is that everything is already dying; and then the whole argument surrounding artificial life, its purpose and development, and the moral (not to mention potentially real-world) ramifications of enslaving it.

While it’s no great piece of literature, this deluge of thought-provoking ideas means that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is these days regarded as a sci-fi masterwork. Some of its essential ingredients are visible in the movie of course, but anyone picking this book up and looking for a ‘novelisation of the film’ is likely to be disappointed.

We regularly end these book reviews with me rather presumptuously selecting the cast I would recruit if the narrative was ever to make it to the TV or cinema. Well … it’s all been done already. Blade Runner may be a very different beast from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it’s close enough (and a great enough movie, in my view – whichever version of it you prefer) to render any further remakes obsolete. 

Most of the images used in the column today speak for themselves, but I would like to thank Wikipedia for the original DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? first-edition cover as produced by Doubleday. 

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