What I read on holiday, or the time I saved a kitten
Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, 215 pages, Michael Wiese Productions, 2005
Inversions by Iain M. Banks, 416 pages, Orbit, 1998
Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks, 416 pages, Orbit, 2000
Matter by Iain M Banks, 620 pages, Orbit, 2008
Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world — and how their invention could make or break the planet by Jane Gleeson-White, 305 pages, Allen & Unwin, 2011
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin, 305 pages, Oxford University Press, 2011
The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR by Chris Miller, 257, The University of North Carolina Press, 2016
I saved a cat on holiday. As you know I have just got back from the Philippines. On our last night in El Nido, on our way out to dinner, I heard a pathetic mewing. This excited me, as it would all right thinking people, as it meant a kitten was imminent. We were staying out of town and were walking back along a dark, lightly populated road towards the old town of the sleeping village cum tourism mecca. It was dark as the sun sets early in the tropics, or it seems to me to set early as I can’t get used to it still being warm while dark. Out of the darkness and in the middle of the road emerged a kitten and only a kitten.
My girlfriend picked up the kitten, again, as all right thinking people would and I could see in her face the realisation this wasn’t a fun encounter with a lovely little kitty, we had accidentally rescued an abandoned kitten. This kitten was marked for death. It was tiny, no older than two weeks old and it sounded pathetic. No longer in a cute way but in a way that made it clear this kitten feared for its life. And so did we.
We asked people nearby whether they had a cat. Did anyone have a cat? No, they did not. Some people who ran a small shack selling litre measures of petrol said the kitten had been abandoned and we should do the same. Not in a cruel way, but in a matter-of-fact way. This was still a bitterly poor place, despite all the recent influx of tourism money, and all the cats had bollocks. You never notice cat bollocks in the UK because hardly any of them have them. In the Philippines I saw more cat bollocks than in the whole of my life leading up to this fortnight and now I was face to face with the consequences.
We took the kitten back to our hotel. We acquired a cardboard box and a saucer of milk. The kitten slept in our bathroom overnight. It was warm and comfortable and it slept quietly which was a relief. I remember dreaming the cat had died in the night and being relieved. I woke early and listening out for mewing and I didn’t hear any. A large part of me hoped this lovely kitten had died overnight just so none of us would have to cope with it, the morning after our last night in El Nido. The cat did survive the night and given the owner of the hotel we were staying in had six cats already I’d say its subsequent chances were good. I don’t know what happened to that kitten but I know I left it at the front desk, healthier, happier and with a hope someone would adopt it (her actually) and the chance of a life of leisure eating scraps from the hotel kitchens. At least I hope.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat is a fantastic and revealing book about the science of screenwriting and movie construction. I instantly sympathised with its purpose of providing a structure, a process and a set of rules to make writing better. Every blogger knows their younger self knew they didn’t need to follow rules, that their writing was superb because they were superb. Ah, youth. It turns out that even when you’re making a career out of screenwriting, or any other sort of writing, people remain very resistant to the idea there might be a science or a craft to what their doing. “Art is inspiration”: when more mature (or perhaps cynical) shoulders know perspiration and rules do a lot of the work too.
The most revealing piece of the book are the page stamps for when thing should happen in a movie. I will get to that in a moment. One of the easiest rules to understand and also I imagine most cynically irritating to the artists out there is “Save the cat.” If you have a protagonist and you want people to like them make them immediately do something likable. If you are still reading then my (entirely true) story about me saving a cat is the reason why. These aren’t just the holiday memoirs and book reviews of just anyone, your humble blogger saved a cat. It’s cynical and yet it works and has worked and will continue to work. Pretty obvious when you see it written down. I shall save cats more often.
The structuring of the movie is the most interesting section and I had the opportunity to test it out by watching Suicide Squad and Star Trek: Beyond on the flight over. Suicide Squad is dreadful, I like it for a lot of the reasons its dreadful but I wouldn’t expect anyone else to. Star Trek: Beyond is good, not great, but it works. It works in a way Suicide Squad doesn’t because it matches the beats described in Blake Snyder’s book. I’ve rarely read a non-fiction book and had its core tenants proven so rapidly. All within 24 hours! You can see the beat sheet below.
You will note that Suicide Squad starts with a dirge of stories about the capture of its main protagonists rather than a neat set up. It also lacks a clear main character, a problem it shares with The Phantom Menace. And if I’m meant to care about the lead characters then I don’t why. They’re just there, not particularly cool or interesting or good or bad by the cartoonish standards outlined. The catalyst that forces them on their journey is a dull treat of death and then they all slowly trudge forward through the plot, with essentially nobody showing any agency or character development.
Star Trek: Beyond is different, it matches this beat sheet so well. I could run through what happens but you don’t need to, just read through the above list and add “Kirk’s” or “Spock’s” as appropriate and a space reference and you’ll get reasonably close. And you know what. It sounds formulaic and yet it’s not bad. Turns out people actually really like formulaic movies. The action is well paced and the story ebbs and flows in a way that makes sense. This book really knows its stuff! In fact, the book made me feel like I could write a movie. Given a lot of the time I don’t feel like I can writing blogposts I think that’s quite a recommendation.
Save the Cat was the book I read on the way out to the Philippines. Matter was the book I read on the way home. Iain M Banks is the sci-fi Iain Banks and the three books I read were all Culture novels, his meditation on What If Gruaniad Readers Were Not Fucking Useless But Were In Fact Like Gods. I thought I might read all four remaining Culture novels this holiday but I knew I wouldn’t get round to the Hydrogen Sonata. Having no more Culture books to read for the first time seems like such an unpleasant situation to be in. So I only read Matter, Inversion and Look to Windward. In terms of fantasy to space opera the novels sit on a spectrum: Inversions is almost all fantasy, Look to Windward is all space opera and Matter describes a world which is medieval-turning-early-modern watched and
After reading Inversions I was relieved when a giant crab in a life support system showed up in Matter’s medieval court. Intervention in primitive societies by the Culture is an ongoing theme of Iain M Banks and why shouldn’t the crab people get in on it to? I do so love the sentences sci-fi produces. Inversions is of course sci-fi not fantasy. There’s a knife missile there the whole time, you just know it, but if you’re reading Inversions waiting for all merry hell to break loose then you’re out of luck, there’s only one special circumstance when that happens. Inversions is more subtle than that. Inversions is a meditation on direct versus indirect intervention and I shan’t tell you how it plays out. It was probably my least favourite of the three books I read however I suspect it will be very rewarding of rereading.
Look to Windward is a masterpiece. Its prologue features a Chelgrian, some sort of five limbed cat-like alien metaphorically saving a cat, sacrificing himself on the battlefield to save his wife. I liked this alien! But Iain M Banks had tricked me, later as layer after layer of alien civilisation is built up and character stripped away do you recognise how morally compromised this Chelgrian is. Chelgrians are a caste-based race of space-faring aliens the Culture accidentally well and truly fuck up and their subsequent quest for revenge. Should you fuck with the Culture if the culture fuck with you first? This book seeks to find out. This book is a good place to start for people knew to the Culture.
This book is about loss and protection. A lot of changes for the better still involve a deep sense of loss. For some that loss is the loss of an individual and that can be a very difficult whole to fill. For others the horror of a war won can be too much. Post-scarcity societies are often imagined to be dull affairs. I think one underlying argument against a universal basic income is that it would make life boring by withdrawing the strong incentive of deprivation. Normally it is total bastards and unfeeling sociopaths who imagine and end of poverty have negative effects because the animal struggle for survival is the only thing which creates meaning in life. This books shows that the end of scarcity is far from the end of history or of human (or weird cat-beast) flourishing and suffering. One of the best elements of the Culture has always been its embrace of hedonism and the creation of meaningful, purposeful lives in a post-scarcity society. Look to Windward adds to the palate of achievement and suffering possible even if we remove the harsh sting of starvation.
Matter sits between the two; space opera and primitives interacting. The Culture and most Involved civilisations prohibit the transfer of technology from more advanced to less advanced civilisations. It is felt that this strips people and peoples of their autonomy and is a deeply morally dubious thing to do. And if you don’t know one end of an anti-matter reactor from the other it’s quite easy to accidentally self-genocide. This is a particularly poor outcome for a species that hasn’t yet learned how to back up individuals’ mindstates to computers.
Matter takes place on Sursamen, a shell world. Sursamen is a system of 15 levels, each 1400 kilometre in depth with an intriguing system of moving and stationar ymini-suns suspended from the roofs within. I told you, sci-fi is the best! On two of these levels live civilisations which are still largely feudal but in which some judicious intervention has enabled the development of the modern military-fiscal state. The balance of power shifts and enables our lovely crab people access to some ancient technology hidden within. Disaster, as you an imagine ensues, and it is largely avoided. Largely. Another cracking novel.
While I was lying awake, wondering and hoping that kitten had died I was thinking about the Culture. I had seen, and ignored, crippling poverty and suffering in the Philippines but nothing upset me or caused as much soul-searching as much as that bloody kitten. Who was more moral? Me for worrying about the cat or the Filipinos who didn’t because they had other things on their mind? The moral world of the Culture is generous and very much closer to me in my worrying about things as inconsequential as a kitten. They are a post-scarcity society so of course they want to save the cat. But it is also deeply utilitarian when it comes to things which are not post-scarcity, like human suffering. I fail to see how a Culture agent watching me wouldn’t have thought I was a fucking idiot, down here where every expenditure of energy is choice which extinguishes a thousand other uses for that energy.
This moral theorising is all well and good…or is it? The thing which unites the other two books I read is that they annoyed me. Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world — and how their invention could make or break the planet by Jane Gleeson-White and The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin were both published in 2011 and they are really, really annoying to read now. It is difficult in a world of Donald Trump to enjoy the victory laps of Corey Robin around conservatives finally proven so wrong about Iraq; or to take seriously Jane Gleeson-White’s idea that if we use the magic of accountancy to properly account for environmental destruction we might save the planet!
It was on this holiday that I began to understand how much we had lost in such a short space of time. Jane Gleeson-White wrote her account of accountancy in a hopeful mood, accountancy is a powerful way to understand the world with a fascinating history. Did you know the formaliser of double entry book keeping was a teacher to Leonardo Da Vinci? Did you know that Roman Numerals basically make accountancy impossible? Did you know Josiah Wedgwood was completely useless at mass production and made a loss on several lines until he adopted double entry book keeping? He invented mass production and only made it work when he had the numbers in front of him and “discovered” fixed costs and variable costs.
Accountancy is a fascinating subject, never thought I’d write that down. As someone deeply interested in economic history accountancy is vital. This book charts the creation of the method which allowed the creation of the sources which are now so useful for understanding the past. It also concludes which two, more preachy, chapters. One of corporate malfeasance and one on the environment and I just could. not. be. bothered with them. Sitting on a beach in the Philippines, sipping a pina colada was not when I wanted to feel a nagging sense of dread and ennui. In fact, that is quite the opposite of what I was seeking. Thinking about Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen, Putin, etc I found the idea that just in 2011 we were dreaming about making the world better not just trying to slow our decline very distressing.
I felt similarly about The Reactionary Mind. I find Corey Robin’s theory more convincing than ever and I find that deeply depressing. Conservatism is not what it says it is. Conservatism, when it is intelligent, tends to say it is a preference to the known to the unknown, the comfortable to the utopian, the wisdom of the ages to the latest, rational idea. All of that is nonsense, in fact conservatism is the ideology of reaction. Conservatism has always been about the violent reassertion of the right of domination of socially powerful classes over the recently socially liberated.
That is very obvious to see if you look at Reagan and Thatcher. Both were deeply identified with conservatism and both were radicals, drawing heavily from the left in method and vigour and both following visions of radical change. If you want a conservative look at the embattled Labour left; give us a slightly better funded NHS, EEA membership and some new infrastructure spending and we’d consider that a big win. It is the conservatives who are the radicals.
You can see this clearly in Trump. His winning coalition includes some genuine losers from the modern world, but it also includes plenty of people who have done well but want to see their social status over poors and blacks and immigrants and liberals violently reasserted. They haven’t asked to go back to the 1990s, they’ve elected a man with a self declared Leninist as his chief strategist. Corey Robin should feel very happy with himself for this book just as soon as he stops being incredibly, incredibly depressed. The book is a healthy collection of essays examining a variety of conservative thinkers outlining this. Michael Oakeshott is not representative of conservative ideology, Steve Bannon is. As I said, it’s a collection of old essays rewritten, rather than its own unique work which I tend not to like, but it stand up well and is, now, essential reading.
It is odd to sit on a boat drifting between giant granite cliffs, with the sun beating down on you as you read about the Politburo blocking reform of the Soviet agricultural sector but then I am odd. The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR by Chris Miller was almost certainly recommended to me by Duncan Weldon. It is a wonderful companion piece to Red Plenty, picking up the story of the Soviet Union’s failure to create a post-scarcity society and describing how it fell apart.
Reading about the Soviet economy which also reading about the post-scarity Culture while in a weird economy like the Philippines has much to recommend it. Reading about anything as you’re shuttled about between home and workplace is an unnatural and unproductive environment in which to lose yourself in reverie: a change of scenery is essential. The Philippines has serious problems in terms of social deprivation, drug dependency, drug violence and now counter-drug violence (and counter-counter drug violence peaceful protests).
The USSR was poor, just as The Philippines is poor, although they are poor in very different ways. Scarcity creates bad outcomes and bad people. Perhaps one of the reasons economics gets such a bad wrap is that it is the study of making scarcity as un-shit as possible (and often that is still not very un-shit). The Soviet economy was very much a scarcity economy and one governed by fiat and plan rather than market and price as The Phiippines is (largely). Chris Miller’s book examines how political power and fiefdoms within the Soviet economy obstructed economic reform.
Instead of the unified totalitarian state we imagine the Soviet Union was very disjointed. In the 1940s and 1950s Stalinist Russia would execute factory managers whose factories underperformed. This sort of ruthless high powered incentives did, unsurprisingly, work. Not only did it provide incentives to keep production high and useful it also (through the regular murder of senior Soviet managers) prevented the creation of a permanent, conservative overclass who resisted change. Khrushchev and Brezhnev stopped all this murdering and the result was a Soviet economy that became increasingly sclerotic. Call it the theory of the 102nd best. It superficially sounds like not randomly murdering factory mangers is a better system but in the weird world of the Soviet economy more murder actually improved productivity.
By the time Gorbachev took power in 1985 powerful groups were in control of the military-industrial sector, the agricultural-industrial sector and they were uninterested in reform. Contrary to popular opinion the Soviet’s knew a lot about the Chinese experience of reform and actively seeked to emulate it. The difference in the USSR from China is that after the Cultural Revolution China had no powerful interest groups to prevent reform. This chimes with another book I have read Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century by Orville Schell and John Delury. In it they argue that perhaps Maoism was incredibly destructive but that that very destruction is what enabled China to thrive. For a century Chinese intellectuals had moaned about the unreformability of the Chinese people and state. Mao annihilated both and perhaps, in a weird way, was the apotheosis of liberal, western-emulating Chinese intellectual history, doing what they couldn’t bring themselves to do.
I have no idea what happened to that cat. I hope the hotel owner is soft enough to adopt another cat, but I fear he might just have done what I could only dream of.
And now for something completely different, here’s my song of the holiday.